It’s Time to Revive the Age-old Tradition of Puppetry

Puppetry is a dying art in Sri Lanka, bemoans master puppeteer, Premin Gurunnanse.

The grandson of Gamvari Podisirina Gurunnanse, Premin Gurunnanse recalls with pride that it was through his grandfather, that puppetry became popular in Sri Lanka.  “My grandfather performed for the Prince of Wales, when he visited our country in 1922. The Prince was so taken up by the puppet show, that he gifted my grandfather Rs. 500 and a Gold Medal.”

That was an era without technological innovations.  All the elements of the show, singing, talking, lighting etc. had to be managed by the puppeteers themselves, unlike today, where sound can be amplified so the audience hears better and the stage could be lit up to enhance the performance. It was a love for the art, and encouragement from the State that helped keep the tradition alive.

Professional puppeteering families hail from the southern coastal town of Ambalangoda, though some have moved out to various other places today.   Premin Gurunnanse, himself is from Kandegoda, in Ambalangoda, and learnt the art from his father, who in turn was trained by his father, Podisirina Gurunnanse.

At least ten people are needed to conduct a puppet show, says Premin Gurunnanse, who adds that one of his sons and a nephew are still involved in keeping the art alive.  He fears that soon, there will be no experienced elders to pass on this art form to the younger generation.   “We are mostly isolated now, as there is no State sponsorship or funding for our art.  There have been several changes of Ministers in charge of cultural affairs, that even before we are able to present our concerns to them, they are moved on to another ministry.’  They do get some help from the Seva Lanka Foundation, but that does not cover all of the costs of preparing the puppets and participating at events.

A variety of local wood, that grow in the wild are used to carve puppets in Sri Lanka. The wood must be carved carefully and costumes prepared for them.  Today’s puppets are about 3 ½ ‘to 4’ in height while those made during his grandfather’s era, were nearly six feet, he says. “With practice, we get used to working the puppets on the strings, even though they can be a bit heavy.’

Traditionally, Sri Lankan puppeteering   has been based on folk lore and referred to as “Nadagam.”  Premin Gurunnanse says that his group performed the “Ehelapole Nadagama” for 16 years during the annual Esala perehera in Kandy.

Premin Gurunnanse, who held the Chairmanship of the Puppetry Panel of Art of the Cultural Department for a few years, hopes there will be more interest in reviving this dying art form. Puppetry should be included in the school curricula and literary festivals, he points out.  “Our younger generation have little idea about this traditional art form.  We were involved in making puppets and learning to operate them, even while at school.”    Today, puppets are made to be sold to tourists he claims, adding that he does not fault those who do that, as they must have a livelihood, however, it is more important to keep this rich Sri Lankan tradition alive, he points out.