Puppets come in different types, depending on the nature of the show. There are thread puppets, (Nool rukada) Club puppets, (Riti rukada) Shadow puppets, (Sevaneli rukada) Hand puppets (Ath rukada) and Finger puppet. (Angili rukada) They can also be classified as two – dimensional and three – dimensional in terms of their visual angle, and are the size of a man. The traditional puppets, which is the string and rod puppets, are sculpted from local materials and are between 90-120 centimeters height. Kings and noble characters are usually larger and heavier than other characters. Kaduru or Rukattthana tree is used to create them. Timbers are also used when characters are made. Two main methods of creating characters are the “Prathima Kala’’ and ‘’Bali Kala methods.
For shows, the puppets are properly dressed, and are controlled with the assistance of key boards that are connected with thread. They are controlled by the artists or players, each with a different puppet and are supported with services like stage lighting, dialogues, music, stage decorations and set ups. A troupe can have up to 200 figures or characters.
Popular puppetry in Sri Lanka
When we talk about traditional puppetry in Sri Lanka, the Sri Anura group is the most popular, whose director Gamvari, followed in the footsteps of his father, who was also a master puppeteer, in keeping their family tradition. They can mostly be found in Ambalongoda village, which is located in the south of the country. Only few groups are still active today. A puppetry troupe usually consists of puppets, scenic elements, lights, and script writers. They are meant for the village audience, and normally in a Buddhist temple or at a school. It’s an event that can be sponsored either by an individual, a religious association, or an organization.
Puppetry is no longer popular in the highlands, where it used to be. In the northern part of the country, puppetry is called bhommalatam, meaning “dancing doll”. This name carries a South Indian influence. Their shows are usually related with the Ariccandra, which is a series of plays from the tale of King Hariscandra, (Harishchandra) a character in the Indian epic called the Mahabharata. The repertory is usually based on the Jatakas, which are tales of the previous lives (“births”) of Buddha, or on other historical stories and myths. In each play, the konangi or bahubhutaya, which are the clown dancers appear first, then there’s a comic scene with a policeman and a drunkard. To conclude the show, the head of the troupe demonstrates his skill with a “dancer”, which is usually a female puppet that is beautifully dressed, and artfully manipulated.
Contemporary Sri Lankan Puppetry
Contemporary Puppetry in Sri Lanka started during the 1950s, and became stronger after the country’s independence, when the Departments of Cultural Affairs and Arts Council were established. The government was able to develop programs to help traditional artists, educate and train young talents in workshops. This gave the Company Sri Anura an opportunity to be able to participate in several festivals abroad (Japan, Taiwan and India). The government also encouraged the visits of foreign puppeteers (Czech, American, Australian, and Japanese in particular) to help contribute to Sri Lankan artists’ development.
Through its Panel of Puppetry, the Arts Council of Sri Lanka has managed to promote the art of puppetry and also maintained its tradition through national festivals, company competitions, prizes for top talents, seminars and workshops held almost every year. New trends emerge every time, television channels show puppet shows for both kids and adults, which are usually political satires or Muppet – style puppets, for adults.
The first puppetry school that was created is Thidora Theatre, which has helped many teachers and disabled artists, and has also produced most contemporary puppeteers. There’s also a museum in Dehiwala, where you can find masks and puppet art works.