The Telegraph
Sunday , April 6 , 2014
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Puppets tug at heartstrings

No child’s play: epics, folk tales & social message
Anurupa Roy presents About Ram

Beniputul, the traditional glove puppets of Bengal; kathputli, string puppets from Rajasthan, and Ravanchhaya puppets from Odisha had the young and young at heart mesmerised at the city’s first puppet theatre festival last month.

Puppet shows, seminars, an exhibition and workshops were held for over a week to mark World Puppet Day.

The festival presented a fair mix of urban trained puppeteers who have benefitted from wider academic and cultural exposure and government grants and unlettered traditional practitioners who spend most of the year as field labourers and depend on the occasional government initiative to keep their art alive.

Take for instance the Tepir ma, Tepir baap narrative presented at the festival by puppeteer Ramapada Ghorai of East Midnapore. If it seemed a tad propagandist it is because Ghorai, like most other puppeteers, often enters into contracts with government departments to use puppets to spread various social awareness messages from family planning to use of latrines to HIV-AIDS. While this is an acknowledgement of the mass appeal of puppets, one fears that in all the sloganeering the ancient putul naach drawn from puranas and epics may be slowly forgotten. “We have so many ancient stories inside us... of Draupadi, of Kangsa... but we rarely get an opportunity to showcase them,” Ghorai said.

“For centuries, people have associated puppetry with begging because people from lower castes went from village to village performing for food and small change. No one ever gave us any recognition or honour,” he said.

Dhola Maru by Puran Bhat from Rajasthan

Sudip Gupta, the founder and director of Dolls Theatre, which organised the festival with grant from the ministry of culture, blames the complicated procedure of applying for registration and government grant for the exploitation of traditional artists and craftsmen. “They cannot fund a group and as a result string, rod and glove puppet groups of Bengal are moving towards extinction,” Gupta said.

Puran Bhat, who learnt the craft of puppetry from his father, has been able to finetune his art with the help of contemporary puppeteers in Delhi, where Dadi Pudumjee’s Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust convenes an international puppet festival, despite never having been to school.

Taming of the Wild by Sudip Gupta

A Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient, Bhat enthralled the audience with Dhola Maru, a play from Rajasthan. The story was old and there was the traditional live music and songs. But instead of a small box stage, he populated the entire performance area with gorgeous dolls — kings and queens who sang love songs, a witch who could change into a princess at the twirl of a string, a camel that gamboled all around the stage. The dolls were a little larger than usual to increase visibility, human actors interacted with them at some points.

“The range of emotions was unknown in the traditional genre,” said Bhat. “Puppeteers have to learn every kind of art. They have to be a mix of a shoemaker, a jeweller, a singer, an actor, a dancer... .There is a deep bond between the puppeteer and a puppet. Puppetry to me is the only really independent art form. Puppets can and have expressed views without caring for anyone’s approval.”

But Bhat rues that people “think of puppets as dolls therefore something childish and trivial, not serious art”.

Khuror Kol by Simple Puppet Theatre

Gouranga Charan Dash of Odisha, a master of the traditional Ravanchhaya puppets, came with his team Shriram Institute of Shadow Theatre but instead of the usual tales of Ram, they presented a version of Tagore’s Chandalika.

Anurupa Roy of Delhi combined video animation and puppetry in her presentation About Ram. And there were delightful shows from Bengal by puppet legend Suresh Datta’s Calcutta Puppet Theatre, members of Talbetal Puppet Theatre and Simple Puppet Theatre, traditional tarer putul (string puppets) and dunger putul (rod puppets) puppeteers and Swapan Roy’s Burdwan Puppet Theatre.

Gupta’s Taming of the Wild combined the best of the traditional and modern, rich in sophistication and visionary depth.

As Debashish Haldar, 14, put it: “This is better than Disney! We have birds walking around, flying and dancing on stage, flowers growing.. .awesome!”

Pictures by Anup Bhattacharya and Sebanti Sarkar