Dying Art Forms, Static Traditions and Religious Mumbo-Jumbo: Puppeteer Anurupa Roy On Our General Ignorance

“I recently had the misfortune of meeting a film maker who wanted to make a film about the “dying art of puppetry“. She said it is “common knowledge” that these artists “live in villages and are uneducated”. Gunduraju and Rajappa’s faces flashed before my eyes. These artists can recite between 60,00 – 100,000 verses from the epics and the Puranas from memory. Who are the uneducated ones here?”

Anurupa and I sat cross-legged on stage as it was being readied for her afternoon performance. We’d been talking about the inability of contemporary urban dwellers – unlike people at the grassroots – to view ourselves as a whole, seeking instead to compartmentalise our contradictions. She’d lamented the lack of rigour and conviction that one hadto tell a story which, according to her, is the crisis of the urban artiste. I remember noting the stage being mopped around us, light cues being cello-taped onto the floor, actors in costume sweeping across the stage with that compelling energy that precedes live performance – and noting all the questions I wanted to ask, if only the crocodile would halt his ticking clock.

When she sent in her stream-of-consciousness thoughts a few days later, I realised just how many questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, for instance, to ask her what connection spice ships had to Balinese interpretations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Or how puppetry performances serve as a source of catharsis in mourning rituals following a death in the community. Or how it feels to discover one’s own cultural heritage when living abroad, what it means to proclaim an art form dead, how puppetry and caste are convolutedly linked, or how filling museums with puppets is a misguided attempt at the preservation of our astonishing ethnic endowment.

“What was the need to invent these forms? Where is their source? How did we get from there to here?” Anurupa had wondered aloud. This is an attempt to find some answers from the only sensible starting point there ever will be – ourselves.

“That I loved puppetry but knew almost nothing about it when I started off would be an understatement.

The beginning was characterised by frustrating attempts to artistically cut up unsuspecting mothers’ sarees, soft toys, and other stolen/borrowed/found (depending on whose perspective it was!) materials to build crude puppets. Their movements were our labour of love aimed at narrating funny stories, but not much else. The ‘us’ in this situation refers to my puppetry soul brother/school mate Rahul Moga (who I often smuggled into Lady Sriram College for Women for puppet show rehearsals), me, and other like-minded lunatics with whom Katkatha was born in 1998. We had no training and no idea where to begin.

It was during one of our earliest shows – a Mahabharata-based collaboration in which the world of puppetry collided with Bharatnatyam – that I first became conscious of the space between traditional form and contemporary practice.

Katkatha and Geeta Chandran's collaboration Her Voice (2000)


Her Voice (2000) was a retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's perspective.

Around that time, I had another life-altering experience. It happened one rainy evening at Dilli Haat, brought about by the arrival of Sweden’s Marionette Theatern in the city. I got to witness Michael Meschke’s The Apocalypse Trial being performed. This was puppetry as I’d never seen it before. I found Michael’s address and, taking a complete shot in the dark, sent him a letter introducing myself. In 2001, I was off to the Marionnette Theatern to study puppetry.

Outside school in Stockholm, 2011.

In the way that the world works, the most interesting discovery I made in Sweden was the traditional puppetry of India! Working as the English speaking guide at Marionette Teatern’s museum – which housed a large collection of traditional Indian shadow puppets and performance video footage – I slowly learned about Indian puppetry forms. The knowledge that South and South East Asia – unlike Europe – has continuous, living traditions hit home hard for me. This means that stories have uninterruptedly lived, altered and changed through traditional performing art forms for thousands of years, and become utterly enmeshed in the everyday lives of the artists and their communities.

[caption id="attachment_10270" align="aligncenter" width="700"]At puppet school – Schola de la Guaratelle – in Naples, 2002.

I returned to India with diplomas in puppet theatre and glove puppetry from Sweden and Italy, and in 2003 became the assistant coordinator of Putul Yatra, a puppet festival organised for the occasion of the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s 50th Jubilee Anniversary. The Yatra was aimed at showcasing of the current state of puppet theatre in the country.

It is important to state here that no real census of Indian puppet theatre had been taken since the 60s. Nobody really knew which forms were still around, who was performing them, and what state they were in. Work commenced when I dug up the Akademi’s video archives in an attempt to find puppeteers, the forms they practised, and figure out whether they’d be able to perform at the festival. It was a bit like to learning to swim by jumping into the sea during high tide!

There were at least 17 living traditional forms in India that we then knew of. There could be more but the practitioners could not be located. In any case the rest were dead forms, like the Koyya Bommalata of Andhra Pradesh, I was told.

Two evenings before the festival began, I received a phone call from a professor from Hyderabad’s Osmania University. Would we like to invite a Koyya Bommalata group to the festival?

“But it is a dead tradition!” I replied loudly on the phone, trying to be heard over the noise in the professor’s background.

“I am watching them right now,” he responded.

Three days later, the troupe had arrived with all their worldly possessions to perform at the Putul Yatra and for the first time ever in Delhi!

Throughout the festival, I’d sit to watch group after group unwrap their puppets and rehearse under the old peepal tree at Mandi House’s Meghdoot Theatre till the wee hours of the morning. I was being made privy to living heritage, history and narrative as it unfolded before my eyes.

I remember each and every night.

I realised then how big this “thing” really was. It had been in existence long before I turned up, and seemed to carry the collective memory of the evolution of humanity itself. Most traditional arts are generational, passed down one’s bloodline. The communities into which they have grown and been developed have never been static. Shadow puppeteers migrated from Maharashtra to Karnataka, then to Tamil Nadu, maybe even to Kerala. Some went on the spice ships to Indonesia, where they were adapted by locals. It is no wonder that traditional Indian shadow puppet clowns or Juttu-mama look very similar to the Indonesian Samar or Petruk! They were the carriers of the oral narratives, of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – not as religious texts, but as treatises of the human condition.

In the Sillakayata narrative of the Togalu Gombeyatta (leather shadow puppets of Karnataka), the puppeteer asks his audience – why does Drona put down his weapons when he hears about Ashwatthama’s death? Was it really because of despair? Drona knows that his son is chiranjeevi – he cannot die! When Bhishma renounces the throne and takes the oath of celibacy, why does Shantanu bless him with “Icchiya Mrityu” – that he can choose the exact moment of his own death? Is it filial love? Or is it because Shantanu knows that Bhishma was one of the cursed sages who Ganga had failed to release from a cursed life because of Shantanu’s interference?

Why would the puppeteers ask such questions of their audience?

Traditional puppeteers, apart from being entertainers and storytellers, are also shamans, healers, advisors and matchmakers. During rites of passage such as birth or death in the community, generational forms are presented as part of the ritualistic ceremonies. The puppet – made up of dead materials – comes to life on stage and goes back to being dead in a box after the show. This constant recreation of the cycles of life, death and the cosmos reassures the audience.

After Putul Yatra, I visited several of the puppeteers I had met at the festival. The high points of these visits – whether to the glove puppeteers in West Bengal’s Padmatamli or to Shadipur Colony’s Rajasthani Katpuli walas in Delhi – were the days without performances, when the puppeteers were at home. As I saw them gather in the evenings to sing and have what we’d call a jam session, I realised that this was not a job. It was a practice in the truest sense of the word, an everyday habit, as natural as bathing.

The relationship between the traditional artist and the narrative fascinates and amuses me in equal measure. In 2014, I spent two weeks in Mussoorie with master puppeteer Gunduraju making puppets by day and listening to his stories by night.

Gunduraju spoke of Mandodari like she was his next door neighbour, of Duryodhan like he was the spoilt child he’d known since his childhood! These were not epic heroes or villains, but people with back stories and reasons and motives who lived through Gunduraju’s storytelling. Would we perceive Shakuni as such a black character if we knew that Bhishma starved his entire family to death? If we were told that his father Subala told him, “Each time you limp, may you be reminded of the sacrifice we made for you” when he broke Shakuni’s leg before dying? The idea that Shakuni did not love Duryodhana and only wanted Bhishma’s kin to die turned the Mahabharata on its head for me. Is anybody really totally black or white? Are things ever that simple?

We often assume, thanks to their televised versions, that Ramayana and Mahabharata are scripted linear narratives. It comes to most of us as quite a revelation that there exist at least 300 written and over 1000 oral versions of the Ramayana, and that no two are identical.

It often startles me when urban artists dismiss traditional forms as religious mumbo jumbo and say things like, “The Ramayana and Mahabharata are archaic texts all about religion. I am not a religious person.” Viewing the epics as mere religious texts is severely short-sighted, to say the least. 300 versions of any narrative is not just about diversity – it is about protest, counter-protest, dissent, dialogue, linguistic heritage and anthropological clues about cultural practices. The retellings of Ramayana and Mahabharataby the shadow puppeteers – who work with leather and were automatically relegated to the lowest rung of the caste ladder – explicitly question the upper castes.

Traditional puppetry footage from Anurupa's archives.

I recently had the misfortune of meeting a film maker who wanted to make a film about the “dying art of puppetry”, thereby uplifting the state of “those poor artists”. I asked her how she had reached these conclusions, and what data her research was based on. She said it is “common knowledge” that these artists “live in villages and are uneducated”. Gunduraju and Rajappa’s faces flashed before my eyes. These artists can recite between 60,00 – 100,000 verses from the epics and the Puranas from memory. Who are the uneducated ones here?

This ignorance has dangerous implications, and leads to the problematic stereotyping of puppetry. Cultural policy makers cannot discern that tradition is not a monolithic block, and that puppetry cannot be divorced from its storytelling narrative and considered “entertainment” or “culture” in isolation. Some forms are dying out, yes, while others are very healthy. One dying form does not mean that “puppetry is dying”. Moreover, intervening to “preserve” it by setting up factories to mass produce leather puppets, acquiring puppets from puppeteers to fill museums, or worse still giving the puppeteers new skills like “lamp shade making”, is a step in the wrong direction. There is no form without the artist themselves. Saving dying art forms involves acknowledging –

– that tradition is a continuous process. It renews itself. Some forms invariably lose their context and significance, and naturally die out.

– that traditional forms are carried by the artists. It is they who need stimulus through exposure and training, and opportunities to market to new audiences.

– that we often fall into our urban trap of looking at the world through compartmentalised lenses, through which traditional narratives are viewed as “old, archaic and religious” and practiced only by “illiterate” people.

I can’t entirely blame that filmmaker. Our education, orientation and environment has forced us to view the world in a certain way. Education is equated with English medium schooling, success with a big car and house. In school, geography and history and chemistry are separate subjects taught in air-tight compartments. Commerce is serious, the arts are for losers. Work is work, leisure is for the weekends, passions are confined to hobbies. How can we hope to understand living narratives passed down generations unless they are repackaged as television dramas or written about by new age gurus?

Traditonal puppetry from Anurupa's archives.

Finally, amidst all this, how do I define my practice? I am not a generational puppeteer. I am the first in my family to take up the practice, which means that I’m not bound by traditional aesthetic rules, narrative structures or forms. My puppet shows have ranged from Shakespearean comedies to Humayun Nama to Bollywood satires to abstract material theatre pieces. I can choose between forms, aesthetics, designs, and narratives without any pressure to “preserve” one type of puppetry. The contemporary nature of my practice liberates me, and yet, what I aspire to is the immersion and rigour of traditional forms. If there is one thing I’ve learnt from tradition, this is it – it is the yeast from yesterday that bakes bread today.”