By  Utpal K. Banerjee

Another recent mention is in the works of Mahendranath Dutta (brother of Swami Vivekananda) of 19th century about a puppet character ‘Kangla’, the beggar of Calcutta, who asks the audience to give alms, from the puppet-stage. The transition of traditional folk form into the proscenium stage seems pretty evident.

Yet the 12-day festival, that is showcasing 16 traditional puppet groups, reveals that all is not well with this ancient art. The prime motivation of this tradition has always been entertainment-cum-education among the simple village folks. Even in the best of times, eking out a living has remained precarious. The show, performed in flickering lights, has been providing mirth and laughter by way of joyous entertainment and has incidentally provided lofty values, based on the annals and legends drawn from the epics and Purans. As this festival brings out, the staple has been Ramayana, and especially the action-studded Sundara Kanda, where Seeta is abducted, Hanuman leaps to Lanka to meet her and create havoc there and Rama defeats Ravana in a fiery battle. But, with the changing times, these simple stories have lost much of their moral appeal. As is clear from the current audience-response, the tales now draw ennui and the raucous jokes and bawdy behaviour of the characters pale on the spectators: now exposed to a fare of cinema and television. No wonder, the patronage-benefits are dwindling rapidly, as gleaned from the conversations with their directors.

Out of the four common forms of puppetry - string, shadow, rod and glove, string was used by maximum groups. Among them, Karnataka's Yakshagana Gombeata was outstanding and the rare illustrations furnished at the end in the front stage by the young master Bhaskar Kogga Kamath were vivid and hugely entertaining. Rajasthan's Kathputli - which performed a long, colourful procession in the beginning - was as visually arresting as ever. The other performing string puppets by the troupes from West Bengal, Maharashtra, Assam and Andhra Pradesh are sincere, yet lacklustre, presentations.

Rod puppets seem to elicit more variety and manipulation by firmly held sticks from below, rather than the loose-limbed strings hinging from above. Kathi Kundhei from Orissa was a competently done show. "I employ a large number of technicians in my workshop to make these puppets", proudly explained their leader Maguni Charan Kuanar. "My musical instruments, other than the puppets, are also made from scratch, by using seasoned timber."

Shadow puppets - both black-and-white and in colour - are quite appealing and their two-dimensional forms are twisted around to create three-dimensional illusion. Tol Bommalattam from Tamil Nadu, under Selvaraja, was splendidly manipulated, but the well-known Ravan Chhaya from Orissa was given an entirely avoidable modern look: by filigreed puppets and iron-frame stage, in place of the old opaque figures and matted platforms: thereby losing its pristine tradition. Glove puppets were pleasant to look at, but not particularly effective.

The best part of the traditional puppetry is their powerful rootedness in the regional folk-form. Thus, Yakshagana of Karnataka, Kummi of Tamil Nadu, and Jatra (folk-theatre) of West Bengal, Assam and Orissa have been unerringly carried forward in their puppet styles, complete with the comical interludes or stirring moral songs, planted among serious dialogues and events, -- thus rejuvenating audience interest.

[Published in the newspaper The Pioneer]
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