Puppet theatre in Orissa is quite popular. It is a folk art of the state which is found existing in four different forms. It is interesting to note here that this is a rather old art form as in India puppet theatre preceded the human theatre. The Sutradhara referred to by Bharata in his Natyashastra refers to 'one who holds the string', literally the one who introduces the play. By extending the comparison of a string holder in string puppetry to 'Sutradhara' in human drama, the ancient dramaturges implied that the Sutradhara plays the same key role in a human drama as the string -holder - puppeteer plays in a puppet drama. There are four kinds of puppetry found in Orissa, namely Shadow puppet, String puppet, Glove puppet and Rod puppet. These are briefly discussed below.
In Orissa this type of puppetry was popular as Gopalila puppet. This is because generally the Lila of Lord Krishna was played by the string puppet troupes. The strings are manoeuvred by one or more than one puppeteer from above the stage and the puppets seem to move with various postures and gestures when the strings are pulled. The troupes playing string puppets are nowadays found in few places Ganjam district, Puri district, Balasore district and Cuttack district.
The practice of Glove puppetry is known as Sakhi Kundhei Nata in Orissa. These puppets are worn like gloves on the hands of the puppeteer and through deft movements of fingers and the wrist the puppets are played. The puppeteer sometimes takes an assistant with him who also plays one or two puppets who represent some characters. The puppeteer both dances and sings while playing them. This style is increasingly on the wane and it is limited to two places in Bhubaneshwar district and Cuttack district.
This is known locally as Danda Kandhei. In this form of puppetry, the puppets are embedded to one end of a rod. The hands and legs are flexible. They are manipulated by string. Rod puppets are found today only in one area of Kendujhar district.
While the traditional players of shadow puppet take their themes only from the Vichitra Ramayana of Vishwanath Khuntia, the other kind of puppet players use the scripts produced locally or produced by famous folk dramatists like Baisnab Pani and Balakrishna Mohanty. The songs and music they use are mostly taken from medieval Kavyas including Odissi. They generally use the medieval songs like Chautisha, Koili, Champu and Bhajan. However, they sing them incorrectly or change the style consciously to make it more popular.
Ravana Chhaya is a rare form of shadow-theatre surviving in Orissa. Shadow-play, which is also known as shadow-show or shadow-theatre, is different from all other forms of theatre, including puppet plays. On the human and puppet stages a real world of space is created in which actors or figures have direct contact with the audience. The effect of the shadow-play is always indirect although it is a form of puppetry in which flat figures, usually made of leather, are lightly pressed on a translucent screen with a strong source of light behind. The audience sits on the other side of the screen and sees the shadows moving when the figures are manipulated. Thus, spectators and actors separated by the light screen are placed as if in different rooms. The spectator is by himself and his feeling of isolation is heightened by the darkness all around. He does not directly experience the figures and the play; he only sees the image, the projection. The light screen is here most important as it filters and modifies the action. On the inner side of the screen, the actor (the one manipulating the puppets) too is isolated.
Among the four different types of shadow theatre surviving in India, Ravana Chhaya appears to be the most ancient. This is because the shadows have an unmistakable primitive quality and the performance is the least sophisticated. Besides, it is the only form of shadow-play in which the figures have no jointed limbs. This form of shadow play is mostly seen held in the rural areas. Earlier, the villagers used to believe that the performance of the Ravana Chhaya in the village could avert natural calamities like flood, drought and epidemic. Therefore, inhabitants of different villages used to contribute either in shape of their agricultural produces or money for holding a Ravana Chhaya show in the village at least once a year. Now with advancement of education villagers have started calling such belief as superstition.
Sakhi-kundhei Nata is the traditional string puppetry still extant in Orissa. So far only a few troupes of this fascinating form have been located in remote rural areas. It is not clear why the epithet sakhi is used to designate their puppets. Some surmise that the name arose because the form earlier used to present shows based exclusively on Krishna legends. This feature Radha's sakhis or female companions as well. According to another opinion, sakhi is often used as a term of endearment. Since the puppets are cute dolls and acquire a kind of life when manipulated, they were endearingly called sakhi-kundhei.
The puppets are made of light wood and, like the Kathputli of Rajasthan, have no legs but long flowing skirts. However, they have more joints as the hands and torso are also made of wood. Figures representing major characters have joints at their neck, shoulders, and elbows as well. Five to seven strings attached to the puppet are usually tied to a triangular wooden prop. Orissa Temple Sculptures and pothi chitras that are drawings in palm-leaf manuscripts have inspired the conception of most puppets. The costumes, music, and style of presentation are somewhat similar to those of the Yatra operatic in character, where singing dominates over prose dialogue. The puppeteers' prose dialogues are often impromptu. The music admirably blends folk with sophisticated Odissi, the singing style close to that of the traditional Chhanda form.