Puppetry is not a dying art form. Instead, it's flying high on the strings of imagination
Reema Gehi Mumbai
If action is eloquence then puppetry is a manifestation of the proverbial phrase. In the present day, it may not be a classical high-art form, but the art of puppetry is slowly gaining momentum and how. Metropolitan cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai have become potential markets for the practitioners of the traditional art form.
Perhaps, the resurgence of puppetry could be credited to the annual International Ishara Puppet Festival organised by Delhi's Ishara Puppet Theatre troupe. Dadi Pudumjee, the founder member of the Ishara repertoire, said, "Over the years, the festival has created a platform for exchange, learning, sharing of styles and technique between puppeteers and the audience."
Incidentally, the seven-year-old puppet festival, made its debut in Mumbai in January this year. Of the nine puppet shows by groups hailing from Russia, America, Taiwan and Turkey, two shows deserve mention - a traditional glove puppet show called, The Beauty of Taiwanese Puppet Theatre, by Taiwan's master puppeteer, Chen Xihuang of Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company, and Turkey's puppeteers, Sehsuvar Aktas and Ayse Selen, who combined shadow play and forms of traditional puppet to stage How to Tell It.
More recently, Delhi-based Anurupa Roy's puppet theatre troupe, Kat-Katha, also staged the Almost Twelfth Night in Mumbai. The Rod puppets and their puppeteers gave the enthralled spectators their version of Shakespeare's immortal comedy.
Theatre and ad man, Bharat Dabholkar, along with ventriloquist, Ramdas Padhye, is also in the process of putting together Fantasia Fantastic - a 4D spectacular, using more than 170 puppets to recreate the marine life on stage.
Almost a decade ago, Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai played host to an avant-garde International Puppet Theatre fest. However, due to several financial and logistics, the puppet fest couldn't become an annual attraction.
The growing curiosity in puppetry has given the art of many faces some creative edge. Padhye said, "World over, you'll find a variety of puppets. Even in India, we have a history of puppetry, but unfortunately, most of them are still living in their traditional cultures and get very little monetary support from the government."
In fact, among the several traditionally practised forms of puppetry like Andhra Pradesh's Tolubommalata and Kerala's Tholpavakoothu, mainly attached to temples and festivals, only Rajasthan's Kathputhli have managed to be sustainable. Meanwhile, the country still awaits a Jim Henson and his version of The Muppet Show.
Nonetheless, the advent of niche television channel programmes featuring dummy dolls to tell tales (read: political satires like Gustakhi Maaf on NDTV India, Galli Galli Sim Sim on Hungama), offers hope.
"Times are certainly changing. There was a time when puppeteers were only invited to perform at swish hotels in between cabaret dances or at birthday parties. It's certainly easier for my sons than it was for puppeteers of my generation," felt Padhye.
Almost four decades ago, the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute graduate with a degree in engineering followed his passion for puppetry like his ventriloquist father, YK Padhye. However, he got unfavourable responses. Today, his wife, Aparna, and sons, Satyajit and Parikshit, represent the third generation of ventriloquists and puppeteers in the family.
Now, the puppets look very different from what they looked three decades ago. They have improved in technique and form. Padhye, also the man behind Doordarshan's popular puppet characters of the 1970s and '80s, Ardhavatrao, Awadabai and the endearing Lijjat Papad bunny explained, "The main reason is that today we use the fabric of latex to make dummy dolls instead of the cotton cloth we used several years ago."
Besides, the approach to puppetry has become more professional and the process of staging a puppet show more methodical. It involves scripting, creating images, preparing a storyboard and testing the dummy dolls so that are in sync with the music.
That apart, technique of puppetry is also used to add nuances to the actor's craft. Pudumjee, who recently staged a visual show on HIV with the help of puppets, said, "The act was well understood and appreciated by the audience. We were able to depict several aspects of the subject, which otherwise would have got the audiences all queasy."
To ensure that the audience's mind did not trail away from the subject, most puppeteers ensure that the shows do not exceed more than an hour. If a skilled technique can be enthralling, the same can mar a theatrical experience, too. Puppetry is not something which jumps off woodwork. One needs to put a certain kind of effort to make it look proficient.
Pudumjee debunked the popular perception that puppetry exemplifies entertainment for children. He said, "One of our shows, Transposition, dealt with the psychological subject of ego and alter ego. It is a topic, which is difficult for children to comprehend."
Likewise, even Roy agreed with Pudumjee. Her recent production, based on Al Gore's thought-provoking film, An Inconvenient Truth, talks about global warming. She said, "Although the aesthetic aspect of puppetry is more appealing to children, the climatic change in the earth's biosphere is a pressing issue. It is a subject that concerns people of all age groups."
All said and done, human theatre is definitely more viable. Therefore, the funding of the puppet theatre remains a perennial problem. Nevertheless, the aficionados have ensured that the unique art form persists. Roy concluded, "Contrary to popular perception, puppetry is not a dying art form. In fact, the audience is taking it more seriously than ever before and expecting better shows. This has helped raise the bar of our own work."