More than just pulling strings

Updated: Jan 21 2007, 05:36am hrs
Kathputlis (Rajasthani string puppets) hamming it across a ramshackle platform optimistically called stage. If thats your conception of puppetry, heres a reality check. Puppetry today is an advanced art form by professionals who incorporate their training in music, theatre, dance and design to bring out contemporary issues to every class of audience.

Last week saw the popular Ishara International Puppet Festival conduct its fifth edition. As always, the plays were drawn from rich puppetry traditions of the world. This year, plays from Spain, France, US, Australia and Turkey besides the host nation participated in the festival. And it drew varied, and crucially, a paying audience, many of them young.

Theres hope for puppetry in India. That's not the leading lights of theatre expressing confidence, but young adults, associated with Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT). Theyve been assisted by Dadi Pudumjee, who is also the man behind the festival. Haluk Yce, Turkish writer and puppet master, also corroborates the view when he says: we have to learn from India as it still has a very strong tradition.

What comes across strongly during the week-long festival, which is also traveling to Chennai and Jaipur, is the innovations made in this perhaps most traditional of fields. No longer are the stories limited to the epics. The puppets are longer pieces of painted wood. The puppeteers are no longer faceless, dismembered voices behind the curtain. "Its an interesting and fascinating medium that connects very directly with the audience, says Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Films, who is closely associated with the festival. It's more direct than acting, there is no actor ego involved, and inanimate objects can often bring out stories more effectively, stresses Pudumjee.

Hatch, an experiment in theatre from Australia had performers Jacob Boehme and Penelope Bartlau narrating the life story of a cuckoo clock, and just about everything they used was, for all practical purposes, a puppet. Or when Yce, in The Colourful World of the White Pencil, tells the story of a white pencil that has to learn not to feel useless, the support comes in the form of a giant pink sharpener. That surely is not the most obvious of puppets looked at from a traditional perspective.

Roy absolutely rubbishes the thought that young puppeteers are only struggling. Today, more and more young people are able to make a living out of the profession. He points to the puppeteers from the low income locality of Shadipur, where a group has made a success out of dancing strings, even traveling to distant parts of the world with their art. He mentions names like Anurupa Roy or Puran Bhatt who are leading and inspiring others to take up this art.

Pointing out the continuing puppetry traditions in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and Rajasthan, Pudumjee says: In many traditions there has been a renaissance, and we must remember that they are all performing todaythey are contemporary. Talking about the French-Indian production, How Wang Fo was Saved, Roy points to its modern theme and presentation to tell the tale of a Chinese emperor by beautiful, completely contemporary puppets from Kerala that had nothing to do with the earlier forms.

Falling between generations attracted to religious conservatism and MTV, puppetry is trying to eke out its own niche in India. Even urban centres like Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Chennai have thriving puppet traditions, says Roy. There has to be a breaking down of tradition, but we have to remember that we can expect a plethora of stories every day. He says that the bulk of performances are done for audiences that still hanker for fairly old-fashioned tales and that needs to be catered to as well.

Discounting challenges from entertainment media, Roy says people find their own levels. Unlike some countries, we do not have an arts council, so earning a livelihood is crucial. And there are enough ticket-buying audiences. Pudumjee scotches another popular misconception that puppets are only for children. The plays are for families, they deal with human issues and everyone can enjoy them.

But challenges like financing and marketing remain, whether it is at a high- level festival like this one, or when the young men trained by SBT try to get their own production going. A lakh is the minimum required for a play, says Anil Kumar of SBT. They often perform at schools or birthday parties, whether the budget does not always allow for the requisite expenditure. But they do draw inspiration from models like NDTVs Gustakhi Maaf. We are sure we want to continue in this field, says Pawan Waghmare, again of SBT, who has been part of the group that made three films for Unesco on HIV-AIDS. Our plays communicate with all age groups, says Mohammad Shamsul, something the others nod their agreement to.

Sponsorship remains a constant worry, points out Roy. ITC used to support theatre, but theyve moved on. Now the Mahindras support to theatre is a welcome move. Expressing concern over quality, Pudumjee also says more stories need to evolve, the techniques have to upgrade and a better support system is crucial to attract fresh audiences.

But given that little Akanksha in the audience enjoyed the transition of the white pencil into a more self-confident future, the future of puppetry, despite its phases of struggle, seems to have set the right course for itself.