||Issue Date: 8 / 2006
Indian Puppetry: Storytelling as Art
I’m back in school. The class is in session. Only this time as I enter the Jamia Millia university campus, set in the hustle of the busy capital city of India, I’m not a student, but a visiting journalist. And the curriculum isn’t history, engineering or literature. I’m here to learn about the art of making puppets.
Massimo Schuster performing in
New Delhi, India. (Adam
Click image to enlarge.
Ranjana Pandey, one of the pioneers of modern puppetry and the visiting faculty for this first year Masters of Arts class, is credited along with Dadi Pudumjee for the growth and popularity of puppetry over the last thirty years. Pandey’s students have been working for weeks on scripts and storylines, setting the stage and making the puppets from scratch. In the true spirit of the art, the groups are handling every aspect of the shows themselves, from the sourcing of background music to the creation of the sets, writing the scripts and even picking out fashionable jewelry for their female characters.
The stories for the groups’ shows are as varied as the puppets themselves. One group is doing a modern remake of Rapunzel, a highly fashion-conscious character with dark lipstick and blonde highlights. As it turns out, this Rapunzel ditches the prince in the end and gets a high maintenance haircut instead. Another group is taking a fun look at the politics of the country, and yet another is imparting an important social message--the fight is against AIDS, not the people suffering from it.
Sitting in this puppetry class, it’s easy to believe that the rich cultural heritage of puppetry in India is safe in the hands of today’s youth, but sadly, that isn’t the case. Even though India is believed to be the motherland of puppetry, the teens of today have little interest in the art. “At the beginning of the year, most of these students come to class with pre-conceived notions about puppetry, fully expecting to dislike it,” says Pandey. By the end of the year, their horizons have broadened and they leave with a newfound respect for practitioners of the art. As Pandey goes from group to group handing out suggestions, pointing out silly mistakes and laughing heartily, I can see why. She makes puppetry fun. She makes it seem cool. And she’s a wonderful teacher.
“She’s very accessible,” one of her students tells me. “We can call her at nine in the evening and she’ll still give us guidance and solve problems right there on the phone.”
In fact, the only reason Pandey has continued to come and teach university students about puppetry year after year for three decades is to help them find new meaning and respect for the art. She wants students, who’re sucked towards mass media and commercialization, to see the simple things in life and gain new perspectives. Puppetry, as a complete art, is the perfect way to impart values and education, and puppeteers pride themselves on being involved with everything in the creative process. She wants students to discover their rich cultural heritage.
And they’re blessed with plenty. India has several distinct forms of puppetry, with traditional string puppets, known as kathputlis, being the most popular, especially in the state of Rajasthan in north India. Shadow puppetry is another very popular form of puppetry in the southern parts and is an art form that’s over a thousand years old. Glove puppets are prevalent in parts of Orissa and Kerala, while rod puppets are popular in West Bengal.
Traditionally, puppetry was seen more in terms of religious significance and good luck than just pure entertainment. Puppeteers were often invited to villages and were believed to bring rains, fertility to the soil and good luck. Puppeteers kept themselves busy throughout the year by performing at wedding celebrations, birthdays, and sometimes even when a head of the village died. Today, while puppetry has made its way into the cities, traditional puppetry is dying a slow death. Modern puppetry on the other hand, is gaining momentum, albeit slowly, and is often used as a tool for imparting social messages.
The construction of the puppet is just the first phase in a laborious process that takes many months. While making the puppet, the puppeteers have to be very careful to give facial expressions that can last throughout the whole length of the show. For this reason, they have to be very simple, yet true to the character. In traditional puppet shows, the colors of the characters’ face gave some kind of indication to what he or she represented. A deity such as Lord Krishna would usually be blue, whereas a villain’s face would often be painted black or red. While puppeteers continue to use these colors as representations, most of the decisions are made depending on the character and what he’s expected to do throughout the show.
Eventually though, more important than how a puppet looks, is whether it has its own unique identity. Pandey explains that a puppet is entirely useless if it isn’t easily recognizable from its costume, walk, movement and behavior. “Don’t put your own values on the puppets,” she tells a group of students who’re considering remaking one of their puppets because he’s too brown and looks like an Indian villager. “Your puppets aren’t meant to sit around and be pretty. They should be able to communicate and reflect people your audience can identify with. Don’t just blindly follow stereotypes.”
And that, I find, is top priority on every puppeteer’s list. Puppetry, they believe, is one of the only mediums that can shake up stereotypes in ways that no other art form can. “We have far too many stereotypes for everything,” says twenty-nine-year-old Anurupa Roy, a major force in Indian puppet theatre. Having established her troupe Kat Katha in 1998, Roy has lobbied for various social causes through puppetry, not only creating awareness on various social issues, but popularizing puppetry in the process as well. “Puppetry helps you shake people up a bit and you do it in a fun, non-obtrusive way.” Roy often questions stereotypes and brings new and different viewpoints to existing issues through her portrayal of characters on stage. One of her shows, Kashmir Project, essentially about the situation of women in Kashmir today, was expected to ruffle some feathers. “We were expecting a lot of controversy, since we showed the Indian army and the terrorists as equals,” she says. “A man with a gun is a man with a gun.”
Another show they worked on recently was their adaptation of the popular epic Ramayana, in which they gave their take on the Rama-Sita relationship. Instead of portraying Rama and Sita as the perfect couple, they’ve fudged the entire ending, having Rama reject Sita right after he rescues her from the demon king Ravana. “The idea is to show that human beings do doubt,” explains Roy. “Love affairs do turn sour. We leave the godlike persona out and only see Rama as a man without judging him.”
Renowned French puppeteer Massimo Schuster also has an abiding love for epics, having toured with I’Illiade, The Song of Roland and Shakespeare’s Macbeth the world over. He became a known name in France after he started his own troupe, Theatre d l’Arc-en-Terre. His performance in New Delhi, India in 2005 was based on the Indian epic Mahabharata and was met with a house-full auditorium and standing ovations. Massimo’s expressions and instinctual story-telling abilities were the highlights of the show, along with the perfectly crafted puppets that were draped with Indian shawls.
But popularity for a puppeteer doesn’t necessarily make it easier to sustain the art. It’s rather surprising to note that no institutions or university courses are dedicated to puppetry and the puppeteers of today have learnt their craft either through family tradition or by studying abroad.
But even after you go abroad and spend hundreds of thousands on education, finding work as a puppeteer can be daunting reality. That’s because puppetry as an art is considered cheap. “People have been content for a very long time to just pick up a sock, shake it about crazily and call it puppetry,” says Roy. “So puppetry’s got this half-baked, can’t-get-good-actors-let’s-get-puppeteers kind of reputation.” It’s also deemed as something that appeals only to young children. “Most people think puppetry is for kids,” says Pandey. “But guess who takes them? Adults!” Puppetry has appeal to almost everyone, be it children or adults, the rich or the poor, the young or the old, the educated or the illiterate, and that’s what makes it necessary to communicate messages through this medium.
This is also why puppets are now being used increasingly for physical and mental therapy as well. In fact, studies and experiments have shown repeatedly that physically and mentally challenged children have shown improvements when given a creative means of expression. Pandey is the founding member of Jan Madhyam, an organization formed by a small group of puppeteers to help disabled and disadvantaged young women and children. Since 1982, Jan Madhyam has been developing simple puppet shows for both children and adults in communities around India.
Ranjana Pandey and her
students. (Adam Huggins)
Click image to enlarge.
Roy also does a lot of community work with her troupe, especially in areas that need therapy and support. A year after the tragic tsunami of South Asia, Roy and her troupe partnered with Upasana Design Studios, a fashion studio that took on the responsibility of training the women affected by the tsunami to make small dolls, aptly named tsunamikas. These little dolls, while made in honor of those that had lost their lives, were also meant to give these fisherwomen an alternate means of livelihood. Roy and her troupe worked with the women by creating puppets of the dolls and encouraging them to create puppet shows themselves based on their own stories of triumph.
“Puppetry has everything,” says Pandey. “You need voice, you need acting, you need music and dance, you need expressions, you need emotions, characters, and a good script. Everything from mass media--take it, put it together and you have puppetry.”
“Which is why true puppetry requires a lot of practice," says Roy. "Puppeteers must not only be good storytellers, but talented performers, technicians and artists as well. You’ll need perfect coordination.”
In the performance of Ramayana that premiered in 2006, they needed three people just to handle the Rama puppet. “More than practice, it’s about how much we understand each other. We’ve been working together for a long time, but for people who’re very new to each other, it could take around a month or two of getting comfortable with each other.”
But what’s the toughest part of puppetry is also its biggest strength: the interactive quality of the medium. And now puppeteers are taking that a step further by combining popular media in puppet shows. So you’ll find puppeteers incorporating masks or mime, others introducing special animation effects and yet more using photography or animation in the backdrop. Kat Katha has repeatedly experimented with modern media and continues to work with photographers and animation partners. Their production Her Voice was done with classical dancer Geeta Chandran, in which the dancer and the puppet shared the stage, creating a unique human-puppet bond. Kat Katha also doesn’t believe in having the puppeteer hiding behind the stage. “When we started, people came to our shows not expecting to see the puppeteer,” says Roy. “But we see no reason to keep the puppeteer off the stage. There’s a very special relationship we have with the puppets. Why hide it? A lot of people wonder how the puppets are manipulated, how their movements are controlled. We just expose the technique right there. You make what you want of it.” In one show, they had the puppet and the puppeteer talking to each other on stage. “We think interacting with a human being makes the puppet more alive.”
It may be an art in need of support, but puppetry isn’t about to die out anytime soon. In fact, if anything, people are rediscovering their love for this fascinating art. And with the Indian adaptation of Sesame Street set to hit television screens sometime soon, some might say, modern puppetry is just about finding its place in the heart of Indian audiences.
To read more about the rich cultural tradition of puppetry from around the world, visit The World & I Online archives:
--"The Rich Tradition of Taiwan's Performance Arts," by Stephen Henkin,
December 2005 (Article #24738)
--"Over the Top, Down Under: Adelaide's Awesome Festival," by Stephen
Henkin, June 2000 (Article #20930)
--"The Puppetry of China," by Nancy M. Chang, June 1996 (Article #10955)
--"Karagoz and Hadjivat: Disappearing Puppet Shows in Turkey," by Herb
Greer, May 1990 (Article #17979)
Mridu Khullar is an international freelance writer with over
200 articles in print and on the Web. She has been published
in several countries including the United States, Canada,
England, Australia, India and Bahrain. Mridu's credits
articles and essays in almost seventy publications, including
ELLE, Yahoo.com, Chicken Soup for the Soul,
New Woman, Writer's Digest, Women's Health &
Fitness, ePregnancy, Girls' Life and The
Times of India.