This vast landlocked country located in Central Asia with a smaller part situated west of the Ural River in Europe, the Republic of Kazakhstan (Kazakh: Қазақстан Республикасы; Russian: Республика Казахстан) shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

While the peoples of Kazakhstan before the Soviet era were largely nomadic, and migratory patterns did not promote urban developement, traditional puppetry in Kazakhstan had regional variety as well as a shared character.

Traditional Kazakh Puppetry

Older Kazakhs today have childhood memories of relatively simple performances with puppets and musical instruments, such as these 1927 reminiscences of a young girl during the pre-Soviet period: “There were people playing the instrument, dombra, and at the end of the dombra they placed the puppet made of straw. And when they played, the puppet began to jump and dance. It was fun for the children. These people were invited to the houses to entertain children, and more often they entertained people in the bazaars. It was very popular, especially among the children …Then the shadow theatre was very popular because there was no electricity and the only entertainment was showing different animals on the wall.”

The Kazakh puppetry and musical tradition called the Orteke is today experiencing a “comeback”, thanks to artists, academics, the Kazakh government, and the public as part of Kazakhs search for a national identity.

The tradition of the orteke may go back several thousands of years. The word “orteke” derives from “or”, ditch, hole or trap, and “teke”, goat. Orteke are carved figures of a horned mountain goat mounted on stands, manipulated by a puppeteer using slender sticks and strings attached to the puppets’ wooden parts. The orteke are attached by threads to the fingers of the puppeteer-musician playing the dombra (a wooden plucked instrument with two strings) and usually performed on a Kazakh perussion instrument, the daulpaz (dauyilpaz, bass drum), “which has a built­in metal core for the fastening of the body of the goat. From below, the core is connected to a foot of the performer and thus is manipulated by him. Simultaneously, the dombra performer can operate three animals (with his two hands and a foot), separately or at the same time.” The goat dances on its drum plinth, creating a percussive rhythm to accompany the string music of the dombra. The goat puppet is also found in neighbouring countries. (See Teke, a puppet tradition found in Iran.)

Originally made by tribal artist from south-west Kazakhstan, Orteke was all but forgotten; it only survived because a few master craftsmen and puppeteers preserved the tradition and passed it on. Today, the traditional Orteke has found new audiences. The government-funded Orteke 2010 puppet festival, held in the country’s capital, Almaty, was devoted to the Orteke. Performers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan attended the 2010 festival. Some of the Orteke performers were very young, as young as five years old.

A teacher at Kazakhstan’s National Pedagogic University, and a puppeteer himself, Jolaushi Turdikulob, notes that the Orteke tradition is very old and was preserved, over the centuries, by the tribal people. Besides the many descriptions of the puppets, there are also poems about the mountain goat that “people used to sing, and that is why this art has been preserved”. Today, Orteke is an important part of the region’s folk heritage and national identity. It is also being taken up in other Central Asian nations with a tradition of wooden puppets.

As an adjunct of the Orteke 2010 festival, a conference was held on traditional puppetry in “Eurasia”, with the purpose of discussing ways of preserving and developing the traditions of Orteke for future generations in Central Asian nations. The conference attracted scholars, ethnographers, art historians and historians from countries within the region.

Soviet Era Puppetry

During the Soviet era (1920-1991), puppet troupes were established in the capital and other urban areas. In October 1935, the board of People’s Commissars was active, and, by 1938, a group of teachers at an orphanage in Alma-Ata (now, Almaty) founded Theatre of the Republic, a children’s puppet troupe. It consisted of two sections, one playing in Kazakh and the other in Russian. Actors of Alma-Ata’s classical theatre were involved in the first plays, and classical works helped mould the repertory until the early 1940s. In addition to plays for children, the repertory included: tales based on the 12th century Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther Skin by Shota Rustaveli; History of a Town, written by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1870); and other adaptations of Russian and regional classics.

During World War II, the troupe gave performances in hospitals and munitions factories which had at the time evacuated to Kazakhstan. Performers won success with sharply anti-Nazi pieces (How Hitler Sold his Soul to the Devil, How a Nazi Soldier Fought with the Piglet).

As Kazakhstan solidified as part of the Soviet Union, puppetry developed in the cities of Shymkent, Petropavlovsk, Jezkazghan, Kostanay and Aktyubinsk.

Kazakh Puppet Theatre Since the 1990s

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the State Theatres continued to be active and were joined by private companies such as Sesame Puppet Theatre founded in 1997 by Kairat Bayanov. The majority of the population is Russian-speaking but performances are given in both Kazakh and Russian.

The State Theatre in Almaty is the largest, consisting of thirty players. Recent works include O Mertvoi Tsarevne (About the Dead Tarevna) and O Tsare Saltane (About Tsar Saltan), both fairytales adapted by Pushkin, as well as Volshebnaya lamp Alladina (Alladin and the Magic Lamp). New and uplifting works by N. Orzalin are produced as well, for example, Legenda o Rodine (Legend of the Motherland). The company has won awards nationally and internationally and has toured to Russia, Iran, and China.

In 2002, the first festival of national puppet theatres was held in Almaty. The 2011 World Puppetry Carnival held in Almaty included a hundred performers from twenty-one countries.