The Republic of Uzbekistan (Uzbek: Oʻzbekiston Respublikasi / Ўзбекистон Респубикаси) in Central Asia is bordered by Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. Formerly part of the Turkic Khaganat and later Timurid Empires, the region was conquered by Eastern Turkic-speaking nomads in the 16th century, and, by the 19th century, was incorporated into the Russian Empire, becoming, by 1924, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Uzbekistan declared its independence.
Of all the puppet theatres of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is among the most studied and believed to be the oldest: some historians trace its appearance in 500 BCE as a form independent of maskhara or mime theatre.
In the Middle Ages, the literary sources are clear. Omar Khayyam (c.1048 – after 1122) mentions string puppet performances; later, Alisher Navoi (Ali-Shir Nava’i, 1441-1501), Uzbek poet and thinker, references glove puppets. These authors show that two techniques of manipulation, string and glove were used.
However, the first solid descriptions of Uzbek traditional puppets are much later, dating from the late 1890s. The authors are anthropologists, missionaries, and Russian traders who kept travel journals. Pyotr Romanov appears to be the first to have systematically studied the Uzbek theatre. In his leisure time from his engineering work, he collected information about the local theatrical traditions and acquired a collection of puppets and musical instruments, which he eventually donated to the Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg); this gift included a charter from a guild of professional performers of puppetry (risola), which requires that the profession of puppeteer (kougirtchokboza in Uzbek) had to continue from one generation to the next in the same family.
The puppeteers lived in an area reserved for them, married into the families of their peers, and daughters could not marry a man from outside. They had neither land nor livestock and lived off their profession. Such family traditions persisted for centuries.
The shows were of two kinds: koul-kougirtchok (with glove puppets) and tchodir khayol (with string puppets), and seem in many ways similar to the Persian tradition. One also found the maskhara boz a kind of performance in which a person wrestles with a human-sized figure as “opponent” that the human combatant manipulated.
The glove puppets require two players, the kougirtchok-boz or puppeteer, and the korpharmon, or narrator who stood in front of the folding screen, facing the audience and playing the drum or tambourine. Whoever took this second role was often a disciple of the master puppeteer. The screen could be arranged so that the puppeteer could play standing or sitting. When the pair had to play for women or for children in a harem or in assemblies where viewers should not to be seen by outsiders, they performed with backs turned and unscreened. The puppets were manipulated in a sort of booth or actually a bag of cloth surrounding the puppeteer, and a device designed for this purpose held up the top edge. The back of the bag was higher (50 centimetres) than the front, forming a backdrop. Two puppets could appear simultaneously on the playboard, and those that were not necessary for the action remained under the bag.
It is such a spectacle that Adam Olearius saw in 1636 (see Russia), and he gave his well-known description. He noticed the performance was identical to the one he had seen at a reception of the khan of Chemaka. It seems that the glove puppet art of Uzbek, Persian, and Russian areas belonged to the same traditional comedy genre. Evidence includes the name of the hero/protagonist of these comedies: Pahlavan Kachal in Persia (see Iran) and Palvan Katchal in Uzbekistan, in both a “Bald Hero”. The Uzbek Palvan Katchal was swarthy with an aquiline nose, bushy eyebrows, a moustache boldly raised, a large mouth and piercing eyes. He wore a fur hat or, as a buffoon, a cap surmounted by a crest or adorned with bells and a shirt of red or bright yellow. His voice was produced by a swazzle (sapel; note, in Iran it is called a safir) traditionally used for comic effect. The other characters were Bitchakhon (Palvan Katchal’s wife), the bai (a rich landowner), a Sharia mullah, an Indian pawnbroker, a Jew from Bukhara, a Russian peasant, a Turkmen, a tightrope walker, etc. As elsewhere, the show was interspersed with jocular or witty comments on the affairs of the time.
The string puppet show (tchodir khayol, a term derived from Arabic, meaning “tent of phantoms/ghosts”) was technically more complex than the glove puppetry. It was usually given at night, indoors, and accompanied by lighting and sound effects. Lasting three to four hours, it used forty to fifty different figures manipulated by three actors (the puppeteer, the narrator, and a student assistant) or sometimes more. Thus, ten to fifteen characters could appear simultaneously, with two or three manipulated by each performer.
One play remained in 2005: Sarkardaral (The Chiefs), a comedy which was performed in the 1890s and the early 20th century: it was dictated by a folk puppeteer in 1927. The plot events were similar to the adventures of Palvan Katchal, but the main character was called Yasaul. After a prologue come a string of ten scenes and an epilogue. The marionette theatre was still operating in the 1920s and 1930s but was forgotten thereafter.
The Soviet Period
When Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union, known as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (Uzbek SSR), folk puppet theatre evolved according to the Russian model. The Palvan Kachal repertory now included social comedies. Alongside the acts of folk puppeteers, European-style theatres began to appear. The first attempt to create such a theatre was undertaken in 1928 with a puppet company set up at the Russian Theatre for Children. The Republican Puppet Theatre was founded in 1939 in Tashkent, the capital, modelled on the Sergei Obraztsov State Central Puppet Theatre in Moscow (see Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova). In 1968, two companies were founded in Andijan and Samarkand, respectively. Each has two troupes, one playing in Russian and the other in Uzbek.
The Republican Puppet Theatre in Tashkent became the rallying point of puppeteers in Central Asia in 1979 when it hosted the International Asian Puppetry Festival organized by UNIMA. It remains an important company today and has, in addition to a repertory of Western fairy tales, plays that explore the local tradition as in the drama Caravansary of the Great Silk Road or stories in which Palvan Katchal-like figures may appear. Language of the Birds is one of the company’s strong musical, puppet, and design works based on Alisher Navoi’s poem of that name (Lison ut-Tayr, لسان الطیر).
In Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Andijan, puppet theatres remained active after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, incorporating more aspects of Uzbek folklore, with the number of companies having tripled since the Soviet period. The department of puppet theatre actors and directors at the Tashkent State Institute of Arts trains professionals. Puppet companies have travelled frequently internationally and have won international awards. Designers are also known for their work: Mansur Shavkatovich Kuryazov of Djaihun Puppet Theatre, Iskandar Khakimov of Bukara, and Ukraine-born Samuil Strashnov (d.2002) of Tashkent State Puppet Theatre are names of noted puppet designers. Their figures have been exhibited or collected nationally and/or internationally.
- Deflassieux, Françoise. “Palvan Katchal d’Ouzbekistan” [Palvan Katchal of Uzbekistan]. Les Marionnettes. No. 96. Special issue. Paris: ABC Décor, 1972.
- Gavrilov, Mikhael Fiodorovich. Koukolniy teatr v Ouzbekistanie [Puppet Theatre of Uzbekistan]. Tashkent, 1927. (In Russian)
- Kadyrov, Mouhsin Kh. Kouguirtchok ouyin [Puppet Theatre]. Tashkent, 1972. (In Uzbek)
- Kadyrov, Mouhsin Kh. Ouzbekskiy traditsionniy teatr koukol [Traditional Puppet Theatre of Uzbekistan]. Tashkent, 1979. (In Russian)
- Solomonik, Inna Naoumovna. Traditsionniy teatr kukol vostoka [Traditional Puppet Theatre of the Orient]. Moscow: Nauka, 1992. (In Russian)
- Sanat (Art) [Online Journal of Uzbek Art and Culture]. http://www.sanat.orexca.com/ Accessed 28 July 2012.