Puppetry is an art as old as time, struggling to find a respectable spot on India’s culturescape. But it’s heartening to see that some artists are working towards reviving and retaining it—especially because India is said to be the birthplace of puppetry.
Anurupa Roy is an important name on the puppet theatre scene. While engaging with the puppetry culture in different parts of the world, she has been committed to improve its situation back home. She established her own troupe Katkatha in 1998 and has since headed some progressive projects such as About Ram, Virus Ka Tamasha, Kashmir Project and Dinosaur!. Currently, she is involved in designing a formal curriculum for Puppet Theatre in India.
As we celebrate World Puppetry Day today, Roy discusses why this art form is still relevant and deserves its place in the sun.
IB: How did you find an interest in puppetry?
Anurupa: I first encountered puppetry at the age of 10 as a part of extracurricular activities in school. My art is a result of multiple influences. Traditional forms of puppetry have influenced me in terms of narrative as well as performance. When it comes to modern puppetry, I have been particularly influenced by Dadi Pudumjee, who invented his original style and Ranjana Pandey, who inspired me to use puppetry for social education. While I was training in Sweden, my teachers Michael Meschke and Arne Hogsander also exposed me to a different approaches towards puppetry.
IB: How do you aim to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary forms of puppetry?
Anurupa: This is a very important question and there are two aspects of it that need to be addressed.
First is the disparity in opportunities that the two forms face. A contemporary puppeteer like me is obviously in a position of privilege with access to a certain kind of education, network and market with enough funds at disposal. When it comes to traditional puppetry, there are 17 living forms and the situation of those associated with it varies from place to place.
The puppeteers in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are far better off than those in Bengal or Orissa. Shadow puppeteers in Kerala perform at temples, participate in TV shows and also conduct shows internationally. In Andhra Pradesh, puppeteers are venturing into manufacturing and are earning by selling puppets as well. In Bengal and Orissa however, there is hardly any money left in the art and unfortunately, the artists are forced to work as labourers! It becomes crucial to bridge this economic gap so that the puppeteers at least continue to perform.
Secondly, any attempt at dissolving the difference in the two approaches has to be avoided. Traditional puppeteers live through puppetry; it shapes their life and community. Whether they wish to change their approach or not has to be their decision alone. They need to be given the same agency and license as their contemporary counterparts. You cannot and must not ask them to stick to a particular narrative, say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, because of their background.
IB: You’re also working towards a setup for formal education in puppetry in India. Tell us more.
Anurupa: UNIMA-India (the national centre of the Union Internationale de La Marionette, dedicated to promoting puppet theatre in India) has taken an important initiative in this direction. Ranjana Pandey (President) and I (General Secretary) at UNIMA-India, along with 45 members are working to develop a puppet theatre curriculum for formal education in India. But we don’t wish to replicate any European model. It is the 3,000-year-old tradition of puppetry in India that we’re keen on engaging with.
For instance, Dadi Pudumjee was invited along with nine other artists who, interestingly, constitute the next generation of traditional puppetry. The idea was to understand their concerns and interests while exposing them to the various possibilities of innovation that were available to them—a fantastic exchange of ideas resulting in various collaborations between the two forms.
IB: Do you believe puppets are a good medium to spread awareness on social issues?
Anurupa: I believe that the role of art becomes relevant when you’re addressing a change in behaviour by questioning belief systems. When you’re offering a solution, art doesn’t have much to do; a brochure or broadcast might work best. But if you’re addressing, for example, the stigma related to HIV/AIDS, you’re challenging deep-rooted values that won’t simply alter after reading a brochure!
The edge that puppetry has is that when a puppet talks, the audience relates with it completely, as they do with a fellow being. It is a non-living object that comes alive in their minds alone, unlike a character, which they know an actor is enacting. People project their emotions onto the puppet and engage with it on a deeper level, which could then cause a change in their behaviour.
IB: You also promote the therapeutic effects of puppetry for adults. Tell us more.
Anurupa: We have worked in collaboration with drama therapists in conflict zones like Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Manipur. Almost always, people internalise the trauma and are never able to vocalise it. When they come together as a group through the shows, they redevelop a sense of community, via puppetry. Also, rather than making a person recall and hence relive their trauma, a puppet is introduced. It retells his/her story and the person finds a cathartic release by projecting emotions outside himself. That is when, I believe, solutions emerge.
IB: You’ve conducted shows all over the world. Which country has influenced your art the most and why?
Anurupa: That has to be France and Germany. These countries are truly devoted to puppet theatre and invest a lot of funds into it. Not only do they have some of the best puppet schools in the world, but the greatest concentration of the art also lies here.
IB: A piece of advice for aspiring puppeteers?
Anurupa: If you’re pursuing a career in puppetry, do it solely for the love of the art and always develop a relationship with your material. Understand that there is no glamour involved here. If you wish for stardom, become an actor, not a puppeteer. The enormous scope of puppet theatre is just beginning to unfold and it will turn out to be hugely rewarding for anyone who is ready to hold on to it.
Image Credit: Anurupa Roy