In conversation with Anurupa Roy, a puppeteer.

Anurupa Roy: I think I was always fascinated by puppets. During my school days I had these classes in art and craft where they taught me to make puppets. I remember my parents had gifted me a monkey glove puppet and I drove the whole house mad for a long time playing with that. In college, as a part of the dramatics society, I was occasionally dabbling with puppets. Intact, for the national social service scheme in college I agreed to do a small puppet show for the kids of an NGO, along with a friend from school, Rahul Moga (a trustee of Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust). I didn’t want any of my other friends from college to know about this, but eventually it turned out that nearly the whole college came to watch it and to my surprise they loved it. That I think was my first stint with stage puppetry. When I was graduating from college, and applying to other places, my principal Meenakshi Gopinath suggested I take up puppetry. That’s the first time it struck me that if puppets was something I enjoyed doing the most, then why not study puppetry itself. I never realized till then that the answer was so simple, and it was a very liberating feeling to have finally acknowledged that this is what I wanted to do. That’s when I started Katkatha, in 1997. I also worked under Ranjana (Pandey) for a while in 1999. I was pursuing puppetry that most mostly self-taught till then. Eventually in 2001 I went training to Sweden and Italy to understand professional puppet theatre. Katkatha has had many members come and go over the past 10 years, has some 12 performances in its repertory, and has performed at various occasions at various place India and abroad.

Q: HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO MAKE A LIVING BY BEING A PUPPETEER ??

It’s not impossible, I can tell you this much. I’ve been functioning as a puppeteer by profession with my group Katkatha for over 10 years. When I initially started off, after my training I had no place to start. Thankfully Ranjana (Pandey) agreed to let me train under her. After training with Dadi (Pudumjee) too for a while, I went on to start my own group. It was like a freelance job. You collaborate, work with established puppeteers, and perform at festivals and shows. We started going to schools and conducting workshops there. So, it was like first we create our own markets, and then we work in them ! It was enough to make a living. However, over the past few years the scope has increased. 11 years back, when Varun (Narain) and I held workshops with children, they were still unheard of, Now suddenly there’s boom and so many places want to have puppetry workshops in the summer. There’s also an expanded role of puppets now to promote social awareness, for art therapy, for teacher training, etc. – so there are more opportunities of work. Plus, there are plenty of places that give grants and scholarships project-wise.

Q: DO YOU HAVE TO FACE STEREOTYPES ATTACHED WITH PUPPETRY ??

Yes. First of all, most don’t seem to believe that there can be puppeteers by profession! The most common prejudice is that puppets are for children. A lot of shows that are made nowadays are for adult audiences and deal with subjects like gender, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, etc. The flipside of this is that, I think everyone tends to undermine the intelligence of children, even mediums like films. Maybe children find it easy to identify with puppets, but there’s no need to show them only cartoons characters. There was a show ‘About Ram’ that I performed at Mumbai recently for an audience of children. There was constant talk of how the children wouldn’t understand the show and a synopsis of it needs to be given first. We performed and the children received it so well.
Another thing that really irritates me, and even Dadi will tell you about this, is how India is attached with exotica. When we perform in Europe they want stories about magicians and snake charmers. There was this time when we were to do ‘Almost Twelfth Night’ (based on Shakespeare’s 12th night), and they were like, ‘why are you doing Shakespeare?’ Also, Rajasthani katputhlis are taken like representatives of Indian puppetry, even in India. It’s sad to see such ignorance.

Q: WHAT IS THE STRENGTH THIS MEDIUM ??

Maybe I am a biased towards my own form but having been an actor myself I feel the other mediums like drama and cinema are extremely overpowering to the senses, it gives you too much information and feeds you too much. Puppetry leaves much to your imagination. There’s a saying in Bengali, that implies that its like you almost poke your finger into my eye to show me something, and this is something I’ve felt whether its cinema or dance or theatre. Puppets are more covert and implied. They only suggest emotion. At no point are we fooling the audience saying, “Look, this puppet is alive!” The audience only imagines and visualizes what we suggest, and for this reason, the puppet shows are always very participatory because they demand audience interaction.
Having said the same, I also must mention that my exposure to theatre and acting during my years at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi was also a great advantage as it helped me understand important aspects of theatre that I would have otherwise missed out on.

Q.WHAT ARE THE BOUNDARIES OF PUPPETS ??

A puppet is understood as any inanimate form that simulates life. However, the boundaries of puppets are blurred. But Puppets, puppetry and puppet theater are associated with 3 specific aspects: a Puppet, a Puppeteer and an audience receiving it. Its only when this circuit is complete that the performance can be called puppet theater. So a child playing with her dolls may be manipulating and giving life form to an inanimate object, but its not puppetry. Other objects that fall into blurred categories of puppets are woodoo, scarecrows, effigies, etc A puppet has a definitive agency watching it and moving it with an objective/intention.

Q: IS THE FUTURE OF CONTEMPORARY PUPPETRY IN INDIA LOOKING GOOD ??

The country has woken up to puppetry in spurts, in Delhi especially. After Meherben (Meher Contractor), the next generation was of Dadi and Ranjana, after which there was almost a thirty years gap before Varun and I came, and we are technically their next generation. Hopefully the generation after ours won’t have this much of a gap. There are already people like Manish Halder, Pawan Waghmare, Shameem, etc who are coming to the forefront. And not to sound immodest, but I think they have the advantage of having so many different puppeteers to train under. And the people in Delhi are doing such brilliantly diverse work. Dadi’s known for his larger than life visuals, Ranjana’s USP is her command on the audience, Varun designs his puppets fabulously, etc. There are also plenty of avenues for exposure. Ishara is doing great work with its annual Ishara puppetry festival. This, I think, will make a difference to puppetry in the years to come if carried on consistently. By bringing in some fantastic groups from the corners of the country and the world, the festival educates the audience with quality work. It sort of raises the bar for the rest of us.
It’s very important to invest in the generation that’s coming up to ensure that puppetry survives. Also, for my own times, I’d like to make sure that puppetry receives its due. Its heartening to know to see its scope grow. Recently, I was at IP College, DU holding a talk/workshop on puppets. I was glad to know that they took it a step further and incorporated puppet in their street play. I realized that there might be people who are genuinely interested in puppets, and they can be encouraged only by allowing them opportunities to be more closely associated with puppet shows and theater.
The future looks bright, but no puppeteer today can survive long on their own. You’re dead without collaborations, whether it’s with dancers, actors, anyone.

Q: AND THE TRADITIONAL FORMS ??

In puppetry, the classical and modern forms are the broadest genres one can identify. Comparing the two will be like comparing, say Warli folk paintings with modern art. Both their themes, techniques, evolution, etc is different. Similarly with puppetry. The biggest difference between contemporary and folk puppetry is that while folk and traditional styles hail from families which have been professional puppeteers since many generations. Their skill is taught to their next generation to keep the tradition alive. However, in contemporary forms of puppetry, the technique is acquired and their themes are varied and adapted contextually by each group.
A lot of the styles in contemporary puppetry in India are influenced by European styles or other puppet forms in Asian countries.

Europe and India have had different cultural evolution of puppetry. Europe has a history of the emergence of the conservative bloc in Christianity and the Dark Ages. This was the time they had a break in the culture. Their art had died, their culture was uprooted and their classical forms were lost. Again during the Renaissance, in an attempt to rebuild their society and cultural revivalism, they started looking towards the East which had thriving traditions. This was facilitated as colonialism came about, and Europe started establishing its colonies in Asia and Africa. So if you notice, the European shadow puppets are heavily inspired by the Asian shadow puppets like Chinese and Indonesian. The Russian Obratsov School of puppetry has nuances of Asian shadow puppetry. Rod puppets, that are common in Europe, are definitely not originally European.
In Europe their cultural forms were dying and thus, puppetry emerged to retell old folk stories and preserve their culture.
In India, the reverse of it happened. Culture was already intact. Instead of puppetry emerging for saving culture, it emerged as a subset of culture. And the traditional art formed are never devoid of a cultural context. Puppetry in India is our link with the past.

In Europe, the driving force was a search for an identity and this led to revival and looking for new things. So, while they searched the East for new things to rebuild their culture with, they alongside innovated modern forms of puppetry. That is the reason that modern puppetry in Europe is older. They also had tremendous respect for their new-found cultural identity. Indians never looked for anything new. They relied on the existing forms of puppetry, and witnessed a lop-sided development of culture. For example, Bharatnatyam, a south-Indian dance form evolved and fine tuned itself over the years. But the puppetry from the same regions of Andhra and Tamil Nadu remained in oblivion. In India, the only time we went into massive cultural revivalism was after independence when revivalists like Kamla Devi Chattopadhyaya and many others undertook intensive tasks of promoting these dying puppet forms from each state. Due to the lack of British patronage for Indian arts, the traditional forms were going into oblivion. It’s thanks to the efforts of cultural revivalists that most of these forms like Pava kathakali from Kerala, and Ravan chhaya from Orissa even exist till today.

Exposure can do wonders. Andhra has two forms of puppets: Koyya Bommalatta and Tolu bommalatta. While Tolu Bommalatta puppeteers from Anantpur were endorsed by SNA a few years back, they became popular in their town and went onto perform in at other places in India and the world. These puppeteer families increased in number in no time and the new found popularity of their art form encouraged others to pursue it as well. At the same time Koyya Bommalatta, which hasn’t yet got the impetus that a dying art form requires to revive itself, has barely 2-3 families that still practice the art and is on the verge of extinction, despite hailing from a district that’s not very far from Anantapur. Even the makers of the puppets are not there anymore, imagine the performers. This is one of the reasons why though Tamil Nadu shadow puppets and Andhra shadow puppets bear similarity, the latter is seen much more often. SNA gave them the much required economic and social impetus.
Take the community of Rajasthani katputhliwalas for instance. Their very life is nomadic. They are associated with street theatre and earn their livelihood by traveling and performing at different places. Besides, it was purely a medium of entertainment and they knew how to package and sell it well. This is one of the major reasons why their form became more popular and is still thriving, as compared to the forms from other states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Another reason that can be cited for Rajasthani katputhlis being more famous than other traditional forms of India is that every form has a specific cultural context and historicity attached to it. For instance, the Pavakathakali and Tolpava Kuthu from Kerala are associated with the Bhadrakali festival that used to go on for days and were performed by the Pullavar community that was of high caste. In olden times, it was greatly respected and considered a sacred tradition. But with modernity, the tradition got lost somewhere. Now that form was so closely attached with the festival that it was difficult for those puppeteers to adapt it to other performances. Of course, now to earn their livelihood, they usually perform an abridged version of it. Ranjana is right when she says that the next 10-15 years will tell if these traditional art forms will survive. But the next 10-15 years will also tell how these forms will survive- whether they can adapt themselves to suit their urban audience, whether they get the required exposure, etc. SNA is doing some good work to promote and preserve puppetry as they call a group of traditional puppeteers every 2 months and hold frequent workshops with them.

Q: WHAT IS THE ROLE THAT UNIMA INDIA PLAYS ??

UNIMA India is the Indian chapter of Union Internationale de la Marionnette-an international union of puppeteers. Unima India was started under Meher Contractor in 1963, and I am presently the General Secretary. (Ranjana pandey- President; Varun Narain- Treasurer). It’s a solo crusader trying to establish a network of all puppeteers in India. However, due to lack of funds, Unima India is not able to realize its objective. I think this is extremely important as there is no unity among the puppeteers community in India, and we’re not able to benefit from our own vast and rich heritage. Though Unima India is an autonomous body, it’s affiliated to the international body to have access to the puppeteer community in the rest of the world. Unima India, should ideally provide a platform for exposure (especially for the traditional artists who don’t have enough opportunities to showcase their art form), to know about practices from the rest of the world and benefit from it and communicate with other puppeteers around the world. There are countries in this world which have greatly benefited from having a nationwide and worldwide network like Unima, and there are countries like Indonesia which have the largest percentage of puppeteers in this world but no Unima. Hopefully, with collective effort, Unima India will grow in a few years time.