| 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
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]