The Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Urdu: ‫اسلامی جمہوریۂ پاكستان‬‎, Islāmī Jumhūriyah-yi Pākistān), a nation in South Asia, shares borders with India to the east, Afghanistan to the west, Iran to the south-west, and China in the far north-east. With the partition of India on the eve of gaining its independence from the British Empire, Pakistan was created in 1947 as an independent nation. It was formed from regions with Muslim majorities in the west and in the east of the Indian subcontinent, becoming West Pakistan and East Pakistan, respectively. After the 1971 civil war, the eastern part of Pakistan, with its Bengali majority, in turn, won its independence from Pakistan, becoming the new country of Bangladesh.

Before the creation of the modern state of Pakistan in 1947, the component regions were part of India where the art of puppetry has existed for centuries (see India). Many itinerant artists from Rajasthan, Punjab and the southern area bordering on Gujarat practised string puppetry (putli) as families. The father manipulated, imitated the voices of the characters, and delivered the stories. The mother played percussion (dholak), sang, and created sound effects. The children or other family members served as manipulation assistants and sometime extra singers. An elder, usually the grandfather, was the narrator. To market their presentations, the puppeteers, dressed in lively colors and sparkling turbans, paraded from town to town and village to village, moving door to door, puppets in hand, ready to hold a performance on the spur of the moment. In times past, they easily got bookings for performances on their instant appeal and would leave a puppet as a token of the contract. At religious festivals, fairs (melas), harvest celebrations, and marriages they performed their puppet plays. These were events of great celebration and brought together all generations in the community: families, friends, and neighbours.

This traditional puppet performance has similarities to the itinerant puppet performance found in areas from Rajasthan (India) to Persia (Iran). Puppeteers are generally itinerant gypsies and were forbidden to sell puppets to outsiders, risking excommunication from the tribe if they broke the secrecy of the group. The repertoire was largely limited to Akbar Badsha ke Darbar Mein (Emperor Akbar’s Court) as the main piece in the performance that combines music, dance and the articulation of issues via comedy. The scene is the court of Mughal emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605), with two of his famous courtiers Birbul and Mullah Do Piyaza present, though minor figures. The main characters are Patay Khan, a clown with lots of wit, and Gauhar Jan, a court dancer and singer. The first is the chowkidar (gatekeeper) who acts as host, commentator and announcer, all rolled into one. He introduces the cast, which includes about twenty-five characters, but most of them, including animals, are mere decorative props. His sexual innuendo and wit were meant for rural audiences and his function has some parallels to the Iranian Mobarak figure. The prima donna of the show, Gauhar Jan, exhibits the colourful variety of costumes that are the hallmark of her profession as a dancer-singer. The figure probably borrows the name of the famed kathak artist Gauhar Jan (1893-1930) of North India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who became India’s first recording artist in 1902. The other active puppet is Akbar himself – he remains seated, but his head, eyes and face move to mark his participation.

There are no sets and the show is staged in a traditional manner – using two bamboo bed frames with sheets to serve as a curtain and backdrop. Behind the bed frames are the manipulator and the female singer/drummer. The puppets are wood. Costumes are ornate, and the rank of the character determines the degree of ostentation. Though the show is entertaining, it is crude in both appearance and dialogue. It pleased rural viewers, and urban audiences were also paid cash for viewing when performers came to town. Since the mid 20th century, performances have become very rare though there continue to be some storytellers in rural southern Pakistan who use puppets in their performances.

Beginning in 1947, the new government of Pakistan was interested in development and, especially in the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto era of the 1970s, all traditional artistic or crafts practices were gradually sidelined. Lack of interest discouraged artists and support often went to the performers who were subservient to power. Puppetry found itself on the brink of extinction.

However, a renaissance in puppetry came though support of the Pakistan Arts Council in the 1960s under the leadership of the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who espoused entertainment for children and began glove puppet performances at the Alhambra theatre in Lahore, first with European fairy tales but then with newly written scripts in Urdu, which Faiz himself sometimes wrote. Czech puppeteers came in the 1960s to help train young artists and by 1964 puppetry was presented on television. Faiz’s daughter Salima Faiz Hashmi, who has become a noted artist and principal of the National College of the Arts in Lahore, was among the early troupe members and later became associated with Akkar Bakkar (Eeny Meeny), a popular television show that played in the l970s and served as a training ground for other puppeteers. The Puppet Theatre of the Lahore Arts Council was later led by Samina Ahmed, who was active from 1986, producing in the Alhambra Arts Centre. With her departure to television, production work has continued at Alhambra, but shows, which are offered weekly for child audiences, are not developed with the same initiative.

Punjak Lok Rahs (“Folkways”, Lahore), an activist theatre also founded in the 1980s, uses theatre to promote education and a civil society: a small puppetry wing does street performances that may deal with domestic violence, women’s rights, or other issues. The group frequently mounts workshops collaboratively with international groups, sometimes using puppetry. The National College of the Arts (Lahore) has had a small puppetry society, and Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) Puppet Theatre (Rawalpindi) did puppet work starting in 1975 under the direction of Shahid Toosi who founded the group with the help of the late Faqir Hussain Saga and Zulfikar Ahmed. PNCA’s History of Pakistan through Puppets (1979) uses 200 figures to tell the national history and is a favoured part of the repertory. The group sent puppeteers to China (1975, 1979) and Poland (1978) for training. It performs each weekend for the public.

The privately funded Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop of Faizaan Peerzada and his siblings, including writer-musician Imran Peerzada and manager Saadaan Peerzada and others, was founded in 1974-1975 and sites have been primarily in Karachi and Lahore. Their theatre-museum complex is in Lahore. These sons of the noted theatre artist Rafi Peer were involved in puppetry from childhood along with other family members. The group has promoted live and mediated puppetry, directing their work toward young audiences. The company performed daily in l982 at the Alliance Française in Karachi. The group experimented with mixing different kinds of puppets (rod, string, glove, shadow theatre) together. The repertory moved from fairy tales to newly generated scripts as they developed. Lighting, props and scenic design also became more highlighted and overhead projectors were used. Imran Peerzada’s musical Akbar Badshah ke Darbar Mein (In the Court of King Akbar) is inspired by the figure of the traditional puppet clown, Patay Khan. Although he is a low official he pretends to be an important person. This comic hit has been presented at international festivals. The company’s large-scale project to create a Pakistani version of Sesame Street, Sim Sim Hamara, was aborted in 2012 when the budget given by USAID was withdrawn. The group produces music events, film, exhibits, performance, hosts international festivals, and tours abroad.

UNIMA-Pakistan was founded in 1993 with Faizaan Peerzada as its first president; founding groups included Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, Rasheed Putli Group – both in Lahore – and PNCA Puppet Theatre from Rawalpindi. Another founder was Farooq Qaiser, a columnist and writer-performer of the popular TV show Kaliyan whose politically informed satire and entertainment pleases children and adults.