Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (Award) signifies recognition of highest merit for performing artists (traditional or contemporary) given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama.

Since 1978, twenty-three puppeteers have been awarded – eighteen traditional and five from modern performance. Awardees are listed by year:

1978 Kathinanda Das (1909-1987) Ravanachhaya, Orissa (Odisha)

A master performer and puppet maker recognized in 1978, Kathinanda Das was from a traditional family of bhats, a community engaged in traditional arts that performed shadow theatre on Ramayana themes called ravanachhaya. He studied from his father and grandfather and kept the art alive in the face of competition from mass media. His student Kolhacharan Sahu continues the tradition.

1979 – Uppinakudru Kogga Devanna Kamath (1921-2003) Yakshagana Gombeyata, Karnataka

Born in Uppinakudru village, Udupi District, Karnataka, 1979 awardee Kogga Devanna Kamath comes from a family active in yakshagana gombeyata string puppetry for three hundred years. His great-grandfather, Lakshman Bhagavatha, led a troupe, including his nephew, Nagappa Bhagavatha (Kogga’s grandfather) who, in turn, taught his son, Devanna Padmanabha Kamath (1888-1971, Kogga’s father). Grandfather and father taught Kogga until the family troupe closed in 1941. In 1955, Kogga and his father, Devanna, repaired the family’s 300 puppets and reopened Sri Ganesha Yakshagana Gombeyata Mandali. In 1966, the All India Handicrafts Board, guided by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, set up a training centre for puppetry in Kundapura, Karnataka, and Devanna participated and received the President’s Award for yakshagana gombeyata. After his father’s death in 1971, Kogga became troupe leader. The group performed at the Masks and Puppets Festival (Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi) in 1972, at the Fifth Traditional Arts Festival in France in 1978, and at the Royal Tropical Institute (Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1979. On Kogga’s death in 2003, his son Bhaskar Kogga Kamath became the leader of the group.

1980 – K.L. Krishnan Kutty Pulavar (1926-2000) Tolpava Koothu, Kerala

Born in Palakkad District of Kerala into a six-generation family of shadow theatre puppeteers, 1980 awardee K.L. Krishnan Kutty Pulavar learnt the art of tolpava koothu from his father, Lakshman Pulavar – performing the art as a ritual in Bhagavati temples of northern Kerala. Fearing its disappearance due to lack of patronage, he dedicated his life to the art’s survival. K.L. Krishnan Kutty Pulavar performed at the Festival of Asian Countries in Tashkent (USSR) in 1979. He is the author of Ayodhyakanda of Tolpava Koothu (a Sangeet Natak Akademi publication). K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar (Krishnan’s son, b.1960) established Krishnan Kutty Pulavar Memorial Tolpava Koothu & Puppet Centre in memory of his father and now teaches this tradition to his own son and other students.

1981 – M.R. Ranganatha Rao (b.1932) Gombeyata, Karnataka

Trained by his puppeteer grandfather (Narasingha Rao), M.R. Ranganatha Rao, a 1981 awardee, excelled in the traditional temple-based gombeyata. Ranganatha Rao devised new puppets using natural materials and reintroduced older plays from the traditional repertoire. A schoolteacher, he created puppetry kits to be used in rural classrooms, and later as a full-time puppeteer led a group that toured traditional puppetry and music, giving lecture-demonstrations and workshops. His group participated in national (New Delhi, Hyderabad) and international puppet festivals (Japan, United States, Switzerland, Poland, and Austria), and he also organized festivals in Bangalore. He created a puppet theatre for Jaanapada Loka, Karnataka, an institution dedicated to perpetuation of folk arts. His puppets are part of museum collections in Japan, China, Great Britain (Victoria and Albert Museum), and Switzerland (Swiss Puppet Museum, Fribourg). His students include puppeteer Dattatreya Aralikatte (b.1953).

1983 – Meher Contractor (1918-1992) Modern Puppetry, Gujarat

Born in Panchgani, Maharashtra, Meher Rustom Contractor was a major figure in Indian puppetry arts, recognized as much for her creative work as for her contribution to the development of puppetry in education. She was a puppeteer, director, artist, teacher, and author of books on puppetry. She headed the puppetry section at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where she trained a number of significant contemporary Indian puppeteers.

1987 – Suresh Dutta (b.1934) Modern Puppetry, West Bengal

Born in Faridpur (today Bangladesh), 1987 awardee Suresh Dutta learnt puppetry, design, dance, and theatre from an early age, and later studied with Sergei Obraztsov at the Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova (Sergei Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre in Moscow. Founder and director of Calcutta Puppet Theatre (CPT) since 1972, his most widely performed productions include Aladin, Ramayana, and Sita. He has served as vice president of UNIMA India and, in 2009, he was also awarded the Padmashree by the President of the Republic of India, one of the highest cultural awards in the country.

1992 – Dadi Dorab Pudumjee (b.1951) Modern Puppetry, New Delhi

Born in Pune, Maharashtra, Dadi Pudumjee was the artistic director of the Sutradhar Puppet Theatre (renamed Shri Ram Centre Puppet Repertory) at the Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture (1980-1986) in New Delhi. Since 1986, he has directed his own New Delhi-based company, Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, and established in 2001 the annual Ishara International Puppet Festival. In 2011, he was also awarded the Padmashree by the President of the Republic of India, one of the highest cultural awards in the country.

1995 – T. Hombiah (1900-?) Togalu Gombeyata, Karnataka

Born in Nagamangala, Karnataka, into a family of traditional togalu gombeyata shadow theatre puppeteers, T. Hombiah, 1995 awardee, performed during his very long career more than one hundred shadow plays based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata. His expertise in manipulation and musical accompaniment won him recognition as a master puppeteer. He participated in the UNIMA World Puppetry Festival in Washington, DC, USA (1980). He also received awards from the Karnataka Jaanapada Loka and Yakshagana Akademi. His son Ramaiah took over the six-person troupe on Hombiah’s death.

1998 – Kolhacharan Sahu (1936- ) Ravanachhaya, Orissa (Odisha)

Born in Odash, Orissa, Kolhacharan Sahu, 1998 awardee for ravanachhaya shadow theatre, studied with Kathinanda Das and has performed ravanachhaya all over India, training younger performers. He participated in Sangeet Natak Akademi’s national puppet theatre festivals (1978, 1995) and workshops (1988, 1991, 1997, 1998), and has been president, director, and guru of Ravan Chhaya Sansad in Orissa since 1986. His book on the art is Ravan Chhayar Utpatti, Stithi o Vikash. Other awards he has received include Bhanja Kala Parishad Award (1997) and Utkal Yuva Sanskritika Parishad Award (1997).

1999 – B.H. Puttaswamachar (1924- ) Sutrada Gombeyata, Karnataka

Born in Belur, Karnataka, B.H. Puttaswamachar trained in puppetry under his father, Huchannachar, and gurus Thimmachar and Lakkanrachar. He studied art and puppet making at Chamarya Institute of Technology in Mysore and performed puppetry professionally at the Jaanapada (Folk Arts) Academy and the Yakshagana Akademi (both of which have given him awards) and received the Kannada Raivothsava Award. He then founded his own puppet theatre in his village to perform the traditional string puppetry, sutrada gombeyata, both locally and throughout India, and also abroad. Among his students are Dharanagaya, A.S. Ramegowel, Shankar Kumar, and his own grandsons.

2001 – Hiren Bhattacharya (1926- ) Modern Puppetry, West Bengal

Born in the Sylbet district of Bengal (today Bangladesh), Hiren Bhattacharya earned his Bachelor of Arts from Visva Bharati Siksha Bhavan College, Shantiniketan, and his Master of Arts from Calcutta University. He trained in puppetry under Raghunath Goswami and Nandalal Bose. He worked with the politically engaged Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) in Calcutta as an actor. In 1977, he founded the People’s Puppet Theatre (PPT) in Calcutta, authoring more than two dozen plays, including Ekti Moroger Kahini (Story of a Cock), Darir Khela, Cheri Fuler Fulki, and an adaptation of Tagore’s Rather Rassi (which uses the image of an Indian chariot festival to represent a classless society). He has also written for actors’ theatre and sometimes adapts folk styles. His thirty-five-member company performs and gives workshops for children and adults all over India, using primarily rod puppets. He has published on puppetry and drama. The film Cultivation of Puppetry documents his work. He has received awards by the Government of West Bengal (1994) and the State Academy Award as a puppeteer and dramatist (1998), as well as the 2001 national Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for puppetry.

2003 – Puran Bhatt (b.1952) Kathputli ka Khel, Rajasthan

Born into a family of traditional kathputli string puppeteers currently living in Shadipur Depot, West Delhi, 2003 awardee Puran Bhatt studied with his father Malu Ram. Later, he trained in modern puppet theatre with, among others, Meher Contractor, S. Rahi, and Dadi Pudumjee. Puran Bhatt is a master string puppeteer in the kathputli tradition, which he has developed into a fine art, and is also an impressive singer in the Rajasthani folk style. He has collaborated with contemporary artists and expanded the repertoire of kathputli ka khel string puppetry with new creations. With his company, Aakar, he has developed works on literacy and environmental issues.

He has worked on projects with Bal Bhavan and the National Centre for Education, National School of Drama Repertory Company, Shri Ram Centre Puppet Repertory, and has performed widely in India and abroad, especially in Western Europe and the United States. He conducts workshops and has acted in plays and a film.

2004 – Maguni Charan Kuanr (b.1937) Kathi Kundhei Nacha, Orissa (Odisha)

Born in Keonjhar, Orissa, from a family of traditional rod puppeteers, 2004 awardee Maguni Charan Kuanr was trained in kathi kundhei nacha (also called kandhei nach) string puppetry by his father, Baishnab Charan Kuanr and learnt sculpting from traditional artist Bhagaban Jena. He makes and costumes his own figures as well as narrating the performance. His troupe, Utkal Vishwakarma Kalakunja Kandhei Nach, is based in Keonjhar, Orissa. He teaches the traditional art in workshops organized by Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi and other institutions and his work has been documented in film. He has also received awards from the Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi and North Orissa University.

2005 – Ganapat Sakharam Masge (b.1958) Kalasutri Bahulya, Maharashtra

Born in Pinguli village of Sindhudurg District, Maharashtra, into a family of traditional string (kalasutri bahulya) puppeteers, 2005 awardee Ganapat Sakharam Masge trained with his father, Bhikaji Sakharam Masge. He also learnt chitrakathi (story-telling with pictures) and chamdyacha bahulya (leather puppets). He creates his own puppets and costumes and leads his troupe in Pinguli. The group has performed throughout India and gives workshops for teachers and craftsmen.

2006 – Naurang Bhat (1937-2007) Kathputli, Rajasthan

Born in Naan village in Jhunjhunu District, Rajasthan, into a family of traditional kathputli string puppeteers, Naurang Bhat learnt puppetry from his family and moved, in 1947, to Delhi with his itinerant family. He received the 2006 award in kathputli making. He makes puppets, wooden figures, and masks for organizations such as India’s Handicrafts Board. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Independence activist and folk arts promoter, saw his potential and helped him prepare his own new plays, such as ones on Rajasthani folk heroes in Amar Singh Rathore and Pabuji, and the sons of Rama and Sita in Lav-Kush. Sumitra Charatram of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, a centre for training in arts, helped him develop other works, such as Krishna Leela (Play of Krishna), Jhansi ki Rani (Queen of Jhansi), and Kumhar ka Gadha, directed by modern puppeteer, Kapil Rahi. Naurang Bhat has presented and exhibited in India and abroad, including Apna Utsav (Bombay), and the kathputli workshops of Sangeet Natak Akademi (New Delhi, 2005), the Smithsonian Institution (USA), and the Festival of India (UK).

2007 – L. Rajappa (b.1952) Tolu Bommalatam, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu

Born in Chinnasalem, Tamil Nadu, L. Rajappa is an eighth-generation tolu bommalatam shadow theatre performer who learned from his father. Rajappa is a puppet maker, master manipulator, and writes scripts, experimenting with new themes. Among his plays are Nalla Thangal (a story of a brother and sister bond), Kovalan-Kannagi (which tells how Kannagi curses the city for the unjust death of her husband Kovalan), Lav-Kush (about the sons of Rama and Sita), and Iranyan Samharama. His works have been performed throughout India. He received the Kalaimamani award conferred by the Government of Pondicherry (2004) as well as the 2007 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

2010 – K.V. Ramakrishnan, K.C. Ramakrishnan, Pavakathakali, Kerala

K.V. Ramakrishnan (b.1949) and K.C. Ramakrishnan, from Kavuthiyam village in Palakkad District, Kerala, belong to a family of traditional Andipandaram puppeteers. Their initial training in pavakathakali glove puppetry came from Velayudhan Pandaram and Chamu Pandaram, after which they learned puppetry and chenda (vertical drum) at Natana Kairali Research and Performing Centre for the Traditional Arts of Kerala. Both artists have performed and participated in seminars nationally, including at festivals in New Delhi organized by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA, 2010), and internationally (Poland, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, and Italy). Their work has been filmed (by Ateliers d’ethnomuiscologie, Geneva, and Natana Kairali, 2006). K. V. Ramakrishnan also teaches puppetry.

2010 – K. Chinna Anjanamma (b.1957) Tolu Bommalata, Andhra Pradesh

Born in Dharmavaram, Andhra Pradesh, 2010 awardee K. Chinna Anjanamma comes from a family of traditional tolu bommalata shadow theatre puppeteers and trained with her father, Sinde Narayanappa and mother, Shrimati Santhamma, from childhood in all aspects (manipulation, narration, singing, and making figures). K. Chinna Anjanamma and Group have presented in Andhra Pradesh, throughout India, and in Tolosa, Spain at the International Puppet Festival.

2011 – Bellagallu Veeranna (b.1936) Togalu Gombeyata, Karnataka

Born in Belagallu village in Bellary District of Karnataka, Belagallu Veeranna was initially attracted to the folk theatre doddata, which he trained in under Sidaginamola Chandraiah Swamy of the Sri Nagaraj Nataka Mandali. Veeranna also played in companies such as Honappa’s Bhagavathars, Lalithamma’s Lalitha Kala Natya Sangha, and the Sri Umamaheshwara Natya Sangha of Bellary, before founding his own drama company, the Nataka Kala Mithra Mandali, which he ran for over twenty years.

In 1980, Bellagallu Veeranna shifted to togalu gombeyata shadow puppetry, establishing Sri Ramajaneya Togalu Gombe Mela troupe. He has written new plays promoting literacy, public health, family planning, and HIV/AIDS and leprosy awareness. His plays include Bharat Swatantrata Sangram (concerning the freedom struggle), Saksharta Andolan (concerning literacy), Paravadi Basaveshwara, and Bapu (Father, about the lie and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi), produced in the togalu gombeyata style, have won him national acclaim. He has performed extensively across India. Belagallu Veeranna has received a number of honours for his work, including the Karnataka Nataka Akademi Award (1991), the Rajyotsava Prashasti of Karnataka (1992), the Janapada Shree Award from the government of Karnataka (2008), as well as the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2011).

2011 – Gopal Chandra Das (b.1943) Putul Nach, Tripura

Born in Sitarampur, Comilla District, east Bengal (now Bangladesh, 2011 awardee Gopal Chandra Das studied putul nach string puppetry and music under his father, Bipin Chandra Das, from childhood. He moved to Tripura in 1990. Besides performing putul nach throughout the north-eastern region of India, Gopal Chandra Das teaches the art in traditional guru-shishya (teacher/disciple) style and has conducted workshops for the Government of Tripura and the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre based in Kolkata (Calcutta). The Tripura Government has also acknowledged him for his service in the field of puppetry.

2011 – Mahipat Kavi  (b.1931) Modern Puppetry, Gujarat

From Gujarat, Mahipat Kavi has been involved in puppetry since 1960. Mahipat Kavi established Puppets & Plays in 1975 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat and is a writer, puppeteer, musician, translator, and educator. He has written more than one hundred puppet plays, performed in India and abroad. A participant of national and international seminars and festivals, he has also organized exhibitions and nine puppet films and various television puppet serials on social (i.e. family planning), health (i.e. HIV/AIDS), and environmental themes, etc.

2012 – Prafulla Karmakar (b.1939) Danger (Dangér) Putul, West Bengal

From Bazar Beria village, South 24 Parganas District, West Bengal, 2012 awardee Prafulla Karmakar learned danger putul rod puppetry from his father, Kishori Mohan Karmakar, and has mastered both traditional performance and creating new scripts. He leads Kalimata Putul Nach group, which performs and gives workshops in West Bengal and neighbouring states. His plays are mainly based on episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, such as Purushottam (Supreme Being, Krishna), Datakarna (about a man so generous he gives his child’s life away), Chandrahas (about a mythical sword), and Sati Behula.

(See India.)