By  Utpal K. Banerjee

While the Sangeet Natak Akademi is staging Putul Yatra: National Festival of Puppet Theatre from 17th to 28th March 2003, in celebration of its golden jubilee, the art of puppetry in India goes back much beyond these 50 years. In fact, the art has been centuries, even millennia old: with continuing tradition prevalent among almost every state in the country. What has happened in the past half century is emergence of contemporary puppet theatre where people have been attracted to the art form entirely outside the traditional families of puppeteers, -- indeed from diverse disciplines like graphics, commercial arts, dance, music and even science and technology. As a result, a whole new creative process has been set in motion, with experiments and innovations found aplenty. This is where contemporary puppetry has extended its dominion, over and above traditional puppetry.

The young puppeteer Anurupa Roy of Delhi flagged off the contemporary works with her Almost Twelfth Night on 18 March. Her group Kat-Katha has been presenting this hilarious play for sometime in Delhi, turning Shakespeare upside down, in a delightful combination of glove and rod puppets, moppets and even humans. "For me puppetry is a mixed, experimental medium which knows no boundaries," declares Anurupa. "It is a grand opportunity to meet a variety of people in different disciplines and attempt telling stories of one's choice. My source of inspiration has been constantly changing with new themes to regale new audience. I find great potential with a lot more changes coming in, with a continuing expansion of horizon. Of course, we have to go back to the traditional roots for techniques and mix them with our imaginative idiom."

The doyen of modern puppetry Suresh Dutta of Calcutta Puppet Theatre (CPT), staged his colourful rod-show Aladin on 20 March. It is an Arabian Night story with the little boy making it big with the magic lamp and claiming the hands of the beauteous princess. With a most imaginative set and beautifully crafted puppets, CPT revealed a touch of excellence, which has been theirs for over three decades. "I was immersed as a child in making clay images of idols," recalls Dutta. "I remember, in 1940, to have stolen a Durga facemask and staged a puppet play for other children, with the rest of the body made with father's clothes. I saw quality puppet plays while studying in Kolkata and used my art school and dance background to get into puppetry with Children's Little Theatre (CLT). A stint under Sergei Obraztsov, the Soviet puppet maestro in 1960-61, opened the contemporary puppet world to me. My inspiration comes from diverse fields like the epics, Jatra, nonsense rhymes and even scarecrow images. My dreams remains to create a National Puppet Theatre, for which I am hoping to get land from the State Government. My source of fund will be by sale of lottery tickets to youngsters who will come to see my shows!"

Dadi Padumjee, who has coordinated the entire festival, presents his Ishara Puppet Trust with the contemporary rod-and-mask piece Journeys on 21 March. It has also been staged with much acclaim before, drawing inspiration from the popular Latin American poem Thanks to Life. "Till 1971, I was interested in string puppet theatre," reminisces Dadi. "I left National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad to join the exiting experiment site for direct-to-home village television. Darpana under Meher Contractor provided me a valuable opening later as well as training under Michael Meschke in Sweden, where I went back to teach. My source material is drawn from various experiences. For SRC Puppet Repertory, I used folk tales and mythology. For Ishara, I've used allegories like Many Faces of Death, Failed to be Human, even political satire. For Gandhi, I've mixed traditional and contemporary idiom, and new scenic milieu. As 2-3 puppet groups since 1980 have burgeoned into 8 to 9 today, I think the future of puppetry is bright."

Pi Theatre's 1001 Indian Nights is a rod-and-hand show on 22 March. Directed by Varun Narayan, it is a spoof on Arabian Nights fantasy in an Indian setting. "Puppetry has been my hobby since childhood," says Varun. "I've been performing in schools, colleges and Mother Teresa's orphanages. Having joined mass communications research centre at Jamia Milia University, I used filmmaking for puppetry. I'm teaching puppetry there at post-graduate level, and still use traditional puppetry as important roots of learning. I'm deeply committed to communicate to our people: in villages for illiterate mass, brothels for sex-workers, street children who have missed out on life; and even fancy audience in sophisticated halls. I've used themes around the gender and taken my shows to Lahore. I refuse to be elitist. I do think puppetry has an exciting future and look forward to using 3-D animation with computer software for so much more clarity in puppetry."

Subhasis sen of Kolkata presents 23 March his Tal Betal Puppet Theatre in a contemporary glove-show Rutir Goppo. It is the story of a run-away doughnut and its exciting journey through many adventures. "I saw puppetry in a friend's house and decided to pursue this art," muses Subhasis. "Having started playfully and getting claps, I never wavered from my resolve. Books are my primary sources, apart from inspirations from Raghunath Goswami, Hiren Bhattacharya, Suresh Dutta and Meschke. My focus has remained as puppetry in education, -- with a well-knit group around my family of parents, wife and sons. I left a lucrative bank job in the 1990s for puppetry and I do believe that puppetry will have a booming time soon in India, -- like the USA where it is a fashion to be a puppeteer."

Sudip Gupta's Dolls Theatre from Kolkata presents Taming of the Wild on 24 March. It creates many vignettes around flora and fauna in nature, -- with a powerful protest against their destruction. "I began with portrait painting without any formal training and moved into backstage work in theatre," remembers Sudip. "A chance workshop with CPT brought me into puppetry. My cardinal inspiration came from the 28-country puppet festival in 1990 and I began serious work with Dolls Theatre. My imagination is fired by graphic arts as I find puppet shows as visually appealing. I'm also fascinated by theatre and discover its dramatic elements in puppetry. Above all, I love to communicate to common man, -- using Western and Indian classical music. My dream is to take my puppet theatre all over India and abroad. I direly feel the lack of proper facilities for puppet-production, rehearsal space and support system. My many sojourns overseas have opened my eyes for the need of technical equipments like computers, so that a lot more perfection can be achieved."

Halde Jhunti Morogti, a Russian folk tale, comes on 26 March from Burdwan Puppet Theatre, West Bengal under Swapan Roy. It is a morality play on how a sincere friend's counselling is ignored only at one's peril and leads to perdition. Swapan is an artist: with art college background and modelling interest. "When I saw a Rajasthani Kathputli programme, I went behind and discovered how the man-and-wife team was conducting the show, -- rocking the babe on a cradle by a string, all the while. I was moved to see how their life was a struggle, and not mere entertainment. CLT was my source of inspiration and I got drawn to fairy tales and folklore. I've been involved with social awareness programmes like literacy, alcoholism, dowry system, breast feeding and community health, the last be a UNICEF project. I'm hoping to get a plot of land from the local municipality, when Burdwan will be declared as a mega city in near future."

On the whole, contemporary Indian puppetry seems to be following Obraztsov style of using realistic puppets and the Meher Contractor's style of abstractions from myths and folklore. It remains to be seen how the future shapes up.
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