Varun Narain interviewed by Ranjani Prasad, a student of LSR, DU (2008)

Q: WHEN DID YOU BEING DOING PUPPETRY? WHAT KIND OF WORK HAVE YOU BEEN INVOLVED IN ??

Varun Narain: Ah, I have been doing puppetry since I was 7 years old! However, it is only after I graduated from the course in Jamia that I seriously thought of pursuing it as a career. It is there that I learnt about making different types of puppets, etc under Ranjana Pandey. Soon after, AG Kidwai asked me to design a programme in the curriculum of one of the papers in the mass communication course. I taught there for about 8 years.
Meanwhile, I was making puppet plays for the theatre. I pursued professional puppetry since 1992. I performed in a few places for a few festivals, but within 5 years I felt stuck and stifled. I had started my own group- Pi theatre, but managing that wasn’t working out too well either. I realized that I needed to break out of the theatre and move beyond just stage performances.

I started experimenting with my performances and working as a solo puppeteer – worked in Dilli Haat, worked amongst lawyers, with sex workers and even took my puppet performances to nightclubs. It is finally at nightclubs that I felt my puppets found a place. It was quite a challenge to keep the audience hooked to a puppet performance when they were in the mood to have fun. My themes, though, were more acceptable to the audience there. It was interesting to work with the music and no definitive stage. The puppets would tell a story and come up in different places and times in the venue. It’s a concept that’s done well abroad, and thankfully it clicked when I performed at Amsterdam first and in other places eventually.
After a while I worked with people in the fashion industry and that experience was wonderful. It was interesting to see how designers look at the body. Usually while making puppets, we use the human body as our blueprint. However, while working with design, this theory was entirely shattered. I started fooling around with proportions and created some fantastical puppets- women with large breasts and backsides, extremely narrow waists, long eyelashes, big lips, etc. These puppets even walked the ramp.
Alongside I conduct workshops. I’ve been writing a lot lately, mostly articles, and taking up editing; all of it regarding puppetry.

Q: WHY DIDN’T PI THEATRE WORK OUT ??

To begin with, barely any people are ready to get into puppetry full time. All group members were tied up with other priorities, and because of this, Pi-Theatre was missing out on travel opportunities and chances of performing at festivals outside Delhi. Also, I was getting hassled with fixing up timings with other members and ensuring that I coordinated a time when everyone was free to come and rehearse. I realized that instead of getting irked by such problems, I’d much rather work as a solo puppeteer. And it has been easier this way.

Q: WHAT WAS YOUR BEST PERFORMANCE TO DATE ??

I think my last performance would usually be my best performance for me. So, ‘Dusk Bride Melodrama’ was my last show, and it was really nice and meaty. we had a ballerina Rhea and it was based on that beautiful song by Mukesh I think, ”kahin dur jab din dhal jaye, saanjh ki dulhan…” It takes a slip from tradition, into the unknown and explores transformation of forms. This performance was also important to me, because for the first time I crossed the border between having an adult audience and appealing to children. The show had something for the children to imagine and visualize, and the adults had enough to understand.

1001 Indian Nights (I had seen a recording of this at SNA a few days prior to this meeting) was meant for a pub, so when it was performed on a proper stage with spotlights and stuff, along with a mixed audience consisting of even children (it was essentially meant for an adult audience; the play was about a kinnar/hijra falling in love with a sufi mystic) the effect wasn’t the same as it was supposed to be. However, that show was a huge success outside India. We got Israeli composers to compose original music for it to give it a sort of western trance feel.
There was also ‘Liquid Rainbows’ that had puppets called Bandana, named after a friend, and Zam. It was about erotic art and pornography and was performed at Khajuraho for a seminar on sexuality. Through the conference these puppets would tell their story and at the end of it, an exhibition of Zam’s works was put up. It was a very different sort of a performance and seemed to have worked well.

Q: WHAT KIND OF TRAINING HAVE YOU HAD AND WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR STRONGEST INFLUENCES ??

Ranjana (Pandey) surely has been a major influence. It’s under her that I pursued my interest in puppetry and learnt other aspects of the art like making puppet bodies, manipulating them, etc. There’s also Neville Tranter, a master puppeteer from Netherlands. He’s so fabulous that when you see his shows, you feel the puppets have their own lives. Incidentally it’s Anurupa (Roy) who first told me about him. I take him as my idol/mentor. He’s done some great work- Schick Gruber (based on Hitler),Vampyr (about a father and a son), etc where his puppets are even moving their eyes while talking to the audience – and I got to see some of this when I had gone to Berne this time in 2007 for an Artist-in-Residence programme. It was wonderful because the whole time we were together and he even got to come and dissect and analyze my puppets from head to toe and gave me some amazing tips and suggestions. I also use my legs while manipulating my puppets and its he who explained to me why it would be very tiring to use all limbs while manipulating and its better than I concentrate on hand work. My puppets also have moving eyeballs and changing expressions sometimes (later he even showed me some of his puppets whose eyeballs could be moved with two fingers and how he figured out this way to make the puppets look more alive)
I’ve had no formal training, but for the love of this art form I kept pursuing it. The first training sort of an experience I had was at Jamia under Ranjana. But otherwise, I’ve learnt over the years by working with other puppeteers like Anurupa; imposing workshops (!) and observing a whole lot of traditional puppeteers and puppet forms around the world.

Q: You are a contemporary puppeteer. What do you think about the traditional forms of puppetry in India ??

Traditional forms of puppetry are more mechanical. Since they stick to patterns in culture and associate themselves with religion, rituals, body, etc, the puppet performances are created with certain boundaries in mind. For example, most of them tell tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Also, all the traditional forms of puppetry from different states of India are passed on hereditarily. What generally happens is that every generation which inherits the nuances of their form of puppetry, reproduce the puppets and puppet plays similarly. They tend to remain stuck in time and tradition, leaving little space for experimentation.
There was once a workshop organized by Sangeet Natak Akademi, which Dadi Pudumjee, Ranjana Pandey and I had conducted. We worked with a few traditional puppeteers and tried to move away from folk stories and concentrated on animal forms, etc. That seemed like an effective step towards encouraging more experimentation in traditional forms.
I can think of Puran Bhatt as an exception. He is one of the only traditional puppeteers who inherited as well as learnt the art and explored innovative ways to expand the scope of his traditional form of puppetry (Rajasthani katputhli)

Q: IS DELHI A LUCRATIVE PLACE TO PURSUE PUPPETRY PROFESSIONALLY, ESPECIALLY WITH REGARD TO THE AUDIENCE ??

Delhi always follows the herd. A few years back I would have to call up places to ask them if they can organize workshops in puppetry. Now, that there’s a sudden upsurge of places that want to hold workshops. So I won’t be surprised if the trend even fizzles out in a while. My idea is to get a proper system there, and not just follow random/arbit interest that people show to organize puppetry workshops. Most of the places that ask me to conduct these workshops don’t even have a proper workplace where paper Mache can dry. So, while its good that there’s a lot of work here in Delhi, its going to be time before it gets better, systematic and organized.
Delhi gives me breathing space. It has many groups doing such different work that there’s room for everyone. Yes, I have been accused of ‘prostituting the art’ but in India, Delhi’s one place that allows creativity to thrive.
I don’t like the idea of having a target audience. I tend to get very bored with similar work, so with different sort of work my audience also rarely remains permanent. As of now, I’m loving being amongst children with my puppets. In the workshops I’ve been taking, the creative instincts of these children seem to be on a high. It was a real challenge for me to allow them to draw any character off their head and then helping them turn it into a puppet. Once you turn your character into a puppet, you tend to personalize it, it no longer remains abstract. That’s the beauty of puppets, and I think this is how one encourages and cultivates an interest in puppetry.
My idea of puppets is not just to have a doll that speaks. The puppets should have meaning; they should say something that turns the audience on their heads!

Q: PUPPETRY IN EDUCATION ??

Puppetry is not persistent in India, especially at a higher education level. I have been teaching puppetry at a few places here in India. One of my experiences was with Rai University where I headed the performance and creative drama program at their Institute of Film and Television. India has no place where one can learn professional puppetry. I was happy that Rai University was taking a step in this direction, but the university began to get extremely commercialized after a point of time and I had to leave. I don’t think the initiatives in teaching puppetry during teacher training by CCRT is very useful either. A 3-day workshop in using puppetry as teaching aids cant transform the methodology that has been followed since ages. There needs to be a change in the very system of education, or else in a country of variables like ours, the whole education sector will look like a circus! Ok, we still might be able to install modern techniques with better infrastructure on our higher education system without entirely changing the system, but the crisis with our education system is that it takes no effort to get modern and makes arbitrary changes.