Inanimate to animate
The variety and range of puppet movements are part of their unique charm.
For turning an inanimate object into an animated puppet show, we need
a few steps, other than manipulation. This relates to traditional puppeteers,
since contemporary puppeteers are less conservative and do not restrict
themselves to rigid codes.
Traditional puppeteers of India generally follow their regional folk
theatre. They imitate movements of their respective folk forms. Every
type of puppets has a set of special movements. Some movements and gestures,
through special articulation, are used to make puppets look beautiful.
Each traditional puppet has some limitations and puppeteers are aware
of them. Puppet's movements have their own characteristics, like peculiar
jerks that heroic characters show, aimed at making them appear superior
to human beings. Striking their heads against the ground shows intense
agony and frustration.
Grouping in Sita
Traditional puppeteers learn techniques from their forefathers
and every puppet form has its own grouping. In order to get variety
in a performance as well as to give clarity to the action, the figures
are grouped to form contrast and stand out in relief with the décor,
-- creating a series of ever-changing pictorial composition.
The old puppet theatre, especially the traditional shadow theatre, has
a narrative text, which is read or sung. Neither the narrator nor the
singers are visible to the audience. The puppets "illustrate" the text
by their action. Through variations in pitch and coloration, the actor
gives the puppet its own voice. Every puppet has its own style of language,
delivering dialogue, tempo and mannerism. The Kathputli emits whistling
voice, which is interpreted by the commentators. The Andhra puppets
have queer modulations and stylised delivery that sets them apart. Traditional
puppeteers leave spoken words to the group leader or other men or even
one man delivering all the dialogues by changing his voice. Now women,
too, lend voice for female characters. Interestingly, cash awards are
often declared for the person who speaks the dialogue and not the puppeteers!
Traditional puppeteers generally use stories from epics and Puranas.
Often they do not have written scripts, especially for shadow puppets.
For epics, they use regional versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata. For
Puranic stories, they resort to the regional folk theatre. Very rarely
they write new stories. The scripts are usually memorised. Traditional
rod and string puppeteers of West Bengal use published scripts of Jatra
plays available in the market. Mostly available scripts are adapted
to puppetry by editing and changing costumes: creating a new performance
within a week! Sometimes they use audiocassettes of popular Hindi films.
Characters in traditional shows are generally recognised by voice, make-up
and costume, which remain unchanged. Comic characters are present in
all traditional plays. Many traditional troupes are presently performing
plays on social problems like sanitation, healthcare, girl's education,
family planning and environment. Such scripts are generally provided
by organisations (or government) that sponsor the shows.
Traditional puppeteers are experts and well aware of the technique. They
generally do not make their puppets, using puppets made by craftsmen.
They only help in making costumes. Shadow puppeteers alone make their
own leather puppets. There is hardly any formal training for the puppeteers
in their art form. Members of the troupe rather gain experience through
participation in the performances from an early age. It is not uncommon
for infants and toddlers to be present backstage during performances and
providing assistance from the age of 4 or 5! Outside the shows, the seniors
help the juniors in improving their ability to read and memorise texts,
-- often from handwritten manuscripts. All puppeteers are adept in the
folk dances of their region, as they often dance with their puppets. Especially,
the Yakshagana puppeteers of Karnataka use the dancing footsteps for their
Puppeteers in rehearsal
Since the same stories from epics and Puranas are used, rehearsals are
seldom needed. Anybody, joining the group, learns by copying other puppeteers.
When new stories are performed on social or other themes, the traditional
style is always maintained. If compelled to change their style, success
generally eludes them!
Unlike modern puppet groups, traditional puppeteers do not need a director,
as everything is codified following a fixed pattern. Group-leader is often
the main commentator, taking decision on shows and money-matters. Many
groups have managers who own the group but have no knowledge of puppetry.
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