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Lifeline for puppet show with religious roots
- People as PERFORMING ANIMALS

Imagine colourful animal puppets standing seven feet to eight feet tall, cavorting to the beat of drums. For ages, such puppets have been part of the folk culture of Bhanjanagar, in a remote corner of Orissa. These large tigers, horses and cows and the smaller deer go out in multi-hued processions during festivals when Jagannath and Durga are worshipped.

The performers, who don these costumes, are accompanied by musicians playing the drum. Once they used to be the harbingers of the festive season. But now one hardly sees them any longer. Like all folk forms, it is disappearing fast.

The animal heads are large papier mache and wooden masks painstakingly painted and the bodies are made of collapsible cane-and-rope structures covered with brightly appliqued cloth.

Earlier, the puppeteers’ dance was purely celebratory, when the horse would trot and the cow would lower its horns and caper in delight. In present times, with growing ecological consciousness, environmental themes have been incorporated. Two performers don the appliqued cloth. Since their eyes remain covered, a third man guides them as they cut a caper. The fourth man accompanies them on the drum.

Generally, the craftsmen who create them double as puppeteers. Five master puppeteers from traditional families of Orissa have been invited to present their work at the Visions international puppet festival in Brighton and Hove between October 22 and 30. Narayan Maharana, Laxmi Sethi, Indramani Jena, Gopal Nayak and Manu Nayak will turn themselves into performing animals at various venues during the festival, where the maximum number of people will be able to see them. These include open-air shopping malls, proscenium theatres and even hospitals. The presentations are conceptualised and executed by Nandita Palchoudhuri.

Originally, this puppet show, with its religious roots, was not meant to be a performance at all. Although many offer the puppeteers large sums of money to buy their gear, these poor men are never willing to part with their consecrated masks. But it is gradually finding a more secular platform and the puppeteers are learning to perform before an urban audience.

They have also learnt how to pack their cumbrous costumes into compact parcels. The bodies of the puppets are like concertinas that can be folded and packed.

In 2000, Palchoudhuri had organised their performance at the opening of the Kala Ghoda festival, when a 12-member troupe had broken into a dance before the cream of Mumbai in the foyer of the National Gallery of Modern Art. Subsequently, they mingled with the crowd that joined spontaneously in the dance. This was their first exposure to the public.

In addition to the performances, workshops presenting the history of the craft and the performance and dance workshops will be conducted in the UK. Later, the group will travel to Belfast to participate at the Queens Festival in early November. Here, the performances will culminate with the Indian puppet tiger confronting a giant Chinese dragon in a mock battle. Thus, symbolically, the Indian and Chinese communities will come together in the UK.

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