World Epics in Puppet Theater: India, Iran, Japan, Italy

This project is part of the Columbia University Humanities War & Peace Initiative, which “fosters the study of war and peace from the perspective of scholars in the Humanities, in conversation with colleagues from around Columbia and the world […] with an ultimate goal of perpetuating a more peaceful world.”


Why Epic & Puppet Theater?

​The World Epics in Puppet Theater: India, Iran, Japan, Italy project consists of scholarly encounters and puppet theater performances designed to foster intellectual exchange and public awareness about four epic traditions and their continued elaboration in puppetry arts. It also aims to feature contemporary puppeteers who use the dramatic capabilities of theater to present, question, and reinvent epic narratives across languages, cultures, religions, and territories.

The epic genre characteristically consists of long-cherished stories of memorable deeds by larger-than-life characters whose actions have significant and wide-ranging consequences. The epics of India, Iran, Japan, and Italy span several centuries, encompass different religions, and originate in cultures thousands of miles apart, all with their own multifaceted political, social, and literary histories. Nonetheless, they contain parallel features that invite comparative analysis and critical thinking on a number of themes related to the human condition that remain utterly relevant today.

Until a short time ago, epic stories remained at the forefront of their respective cultures (and beyond) through folk performance traditions, especially puppet theater. Although this unique form of creative expression (at once genuinely local and quintessentially global) has been largely superseded by mass media in recent decades, puppeteers can still be found who bring to life episodes from these epic masterpieces for today’s audiences. Moreover, some puppet theater companies rework narrative backdrops presupposing hostility between opposing groups in order to actively question collective confrontations and promote understanding across cultures. Tellingly, UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) describes itself as “an organization in which all those people in the world concerned with the Art of the Puppet Theatre associate voluntarily in order to serve through their art the idea of peace and of mutual understanding without distinction as to race, political ideas or religion.”



The first event of the World Epics in Puppet Theater: India, Iran, Japan, Italy project was an online mini-symposium dedicated to the theme of exile. This mini-symposium was hosted by the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino” (Palermo) on November 12, 2021, as part of its annual Festival di Morgana (edition XLVI). The program with abstracts of the five presentations, brief biographies of the speakers, and a video recording of the full mini-symposium can be found below.


Rosario Perricone

(Museo Internazionale delle

Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino”)


Video [00:00 – 12:54]

Welcoming remarks

Jo Ann Cavallo

(Columbia University)



Video [12:55 – 19:12]


Paula Richman


Paula Richman is William H. Danforth Professor of South Asian Religions, Emerita, at Oberlin College, USA. She has published on Tamil narrative, including Extraordinary Child: Translations from a Genre of Tamil Devotional Poetry (Penguin). In addition, she has edited and contributed to four volumes on the Ramayana tradition, including Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia; Questioning Ramayanas, a South Asian Tradition (2000); Ramayana Stories in Modern South India (2008); and co-edited with Rustom Bharucha Performing the Ramayana Tradition: Enactments, Interpretations, and Arguments (2021). At present, she is completing a book on south Indian tellings of the Ramayana, 1910-2010. She has also published on representations of Sita in Mithila paintings.

When Heirs to the Throne are Exiled in the Indian Ramayana

Video [21:44 – 36:11]

After introducing the Ramayana and the puppet theater tradition of southwest India (Tolpavakuttu), Prof. Richman discusses Rama’s exile to the forest and his key encounters therein. She examines in particular an episode developed by Tolpavakuttu puppeteers not found in their source (Kamban’s Tamil text) that disrupts the notion of Rama as a perfect man and creates sympathy for the female demon Shurpanakha whose home is the forest.

Elizabeth Oyler


Elizabeth Oyler is Associate Professor of Japanese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on the representation of historical and cultural memory in literature and performing arts from Japan’s medieval period, particularly the fifteenth century. She is the author of Swords, Oaths and Prophetic Visions: Authoring Warrior Rule in Medieval Japan and co-editor, with Michael G. Watson, of Like Clouds or Mists: Studies and Translations of Noh Plays of the Genpei War, as well as articles on medieval narrative and performance traditions. A second co-edited (with Katherine Saltzman-Li) volume, Cultural Imprints: War and Memory in the Samurai Age, is forthcoming from Cornell East Asia Series (2022).

Shunkan on Devil Island: Domesticating Political Exile in the Puppet Play Heike nōgyo no shima

Video  [38:34 – 1:03:07]

Prof. Oyler begins with a brief introduction to the Tale of the Heike and Japan’s puppet theater (ningyō jōruri), and then turns to a discussion of how Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s early modern puppet theater version refashions the Heike’s story of the Buddhist prelate Shunkan (banished to Devil Island following a botched coup attempt) in order to draw attention to the oppressiveness of the early modern polity, with its strict regulations regarding social status and mobility.

Olga M. Davidson


Olga M. Davidson earned her PhD in 1983 from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies. She is on the faculty of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, Boston University, where she has served as Research Fellow since 2009. From 1992 to 1997, she was Chair of the Concentration in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. Since 1999, she has been Chair of the Board, Ilex Foundation. She is the author of Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings and Comparative Literature and Classical Persian Poetry, both of which have been translated into Persian and distributed in Iran.

The Shahnameh‘s Zal: From Exiled Infant to Star-Crossed Lover

Video [21:44 – 36:11]

Prof. Davidson offers background information on the shadow puppet play Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic (2016), based on Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and conceived, designed, and directed by Hamid Rahmanian. She focuses in particular on the character of Zal—his birth and immediate expulsion due to his white hair, his exiled childhood, and his later marriage to Rudabeh—as well as Zal’s son Rostam, one of the epic’s most beloved heroes.

Anna Carocci


Anna Carocci is an Italianista at the Sapienza and Roma Tre Universities. Her primary field is chivalric literature and popular publishing of the sixteenth century. Among her works are La lezione di Boiardo. Il poema cavalleresco dopo l’Inamoramento de Orlando (1483-1521)  (Vecchiarelli, 2018) and Il poema che cammina. La letteratura cavalleresca nell’opera dei pupi (Edizioni Pasqualino, 2019), Stile d’autore. Forme e funzioni del Mambrian (Viella, 2021).

Metamorfosi del tema dell’esilio: l’Oriente magico e l’incontro con l’Altro

Video [1:21:40 – 1:48:53]

Il cavaliere in esilio che si addentra in terre pagane costituisce un tema ricorrente e caratterizzante della letteratura cavalleresca fin dalle sue origini. Dopo aver tratteggiato le caratteristiche principali del tema dell’esilio, l’intervento si concentra sulla sua declinazione nella Storia dei paladini di Francia di Giusto Lodico e nell’opera dei pupi attraverso l’analisi di un caso particolarmente significativo: la storia del figlio adottivo di Rinaldo, Morbello detto Malaguerra, e delle sue imprese lontano dalla Francia, tra prove magiche e scoperta della propria identità.

Alessandro Napoli


Alessandro Napoli is a scholar, professor, and professional puppeteer with his family’s famed puppet theater company, the Marionettistica dei Fratelli Napoli  of Catania. He is the author of several books and articles on Sicilian puppet theater, including Il racconto e i colori: “Storie” e “cartelli” dell’Opera dei Pupi catanese (Palermo: Sellerio, 2002), and he has recently edited Rerum palatinorum fragmenta, by Antonio Pasqualino (Palermo, Edizioni Museo Pasqualino, 2018).

Dolori e trionfi di Rinaldo imperatore nel poema La Trabisonda

Video [1:50:39 – 2:15:27]

Nel poema anonimo La Trabisonda si racconta dell’esilio di Rinaldo in Oriente e della sua ascesa al soglio imperiale di Trebisonda. Vedremo quali significati questa storia cavalleresca potesse veicolare nella seconda metà del Quattrocento e poi presso i ceti popolari siciliani dell’Ottocento e del Novecento, che leggevano la Storia dei Paladini di Francia di Giusto Lodico e assistevano ogni sera agli spettacoli dell’Opera dei Pupi.

Encounters with the Puppeteers

Performances of Puppet Plays

The subsequent four events of the World Epics in Puppet Theater: India, Iran, Japan, Italy project are puppet plays from each of the four epic traditions. Whereas the first was performed live at the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino” in November of 2021, the remaining three will be online screenings and Q&As with the puppeteers, hosted by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, University of Connecticut, on May 11, 18, and 25, 2022.


Live and streamed performance

A performance of Rinaldo imperatore di Trebisonda by the Marionettistica dei Fratelli Napoli of Catania was hosted by the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino” in Palermo, Italy, on November 12, 2021. The performance was staged following the World Epics in Puppet Theater mini-symposium on the theme of exile in which Alessandro Napoli gave a presentation on the “Rinaldo, Emperor of Trebizond” episode in literary and puppet theater traditions (both the presentation and the performance are available on this website).


Online Screening and Q&A

Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic. A cinematic shadow play that features the white-haired Zal from his birth to his love story with Rudabeh, based on the Persian epic Shahnameh (‘The Book of Kings’). Created and directed by Hamid Rahmanian with graphics derived from the visual tradition of the region, rendered as puppets, costumes, masks, scenography, and digital animation.  An online screening followed by a Q&A with Hamid Rahmanian, in conversation with Olga M. Davidson (Boston University) and John Bell (Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, University of Connecticut) took place on May 11, 2022. The Q&A is available on this website.


Online Screening and Q&A

Moritoshi’s Report / Atsumori’s Departure and Atsumori’s Death: a sequence of two cart puppet plays derived from the Japanese epic Tales of the HeikePerformed by the Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo The Koryu Nishikawa Troupe (cart puppetry company) of Japan. An online screening, followed by a Q&A with Koryu Nishikawa V, in conversation with Claudia Orenstein (Hunter College), Elizabeth Oyler (University of Pittsburgh), and John Bell (Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, University of Connecticut), took place on May 18, 2022. Both the video and Q&A are available on this website.


Online Screening and Q&A

About Ram. An experimental theatrical piece and collaborative performance, using excerpts from the Bhavbhuti Ramayana and told through animation, projected images, dance, masks, and puppets. Directed by Anurupa Roy. Animation by Vishal Dhar. Performed by the Katkatha Puppet Theatre Group. An online screening followed by a Q&A with Anurupa Roy, in conversation with Paula Richman (Oberlin College) and John Bell (Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, University of Connecticut), took place on May 25, 2022. The Q&A is available on this website.

Academic Committee

Jo Ann Cavallo

(Columbia University)

Olga M. Davidson

(Boston University)

Claudia Orenstein

(Hunter College, CUNY; UNIMA-USA)

Elizabeth Oyler

(University of Pittsburgh)

Paula Richman

(Oberlin College)

Poupak Azimpour Tabrizi

(University of Tehran, Iran)


Columbia University

The Humanities War and Peace Initiative, through the Division of Humanities in the Arts & Sciences 

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture

University of  Connecticut

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry

The Puppet Arts Program, Department of Dramatic Arts

Museo Internazionale delle Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino” in Palermo, Italy 


University of Pittsburgh