The uniqueness of puppetry is that it’s the theatre of dead material. This material could be anything – a doll moved by strings, a shoe, a bit of fabric or even a piece of paper. When life is breathed into the material, it becomes a puppet. A puppet is only alive in the head of the viewer.
“Sometimes after a show people walk up to us and ask ‘How did the puppet change expressions, do you have levers on the face?’ They have imagined all this, projecting their own feelings onto the puppet.”
PUPPETRY IN INDIA
The oldest puppets in the world are either from India or China. India is exceptional in that we have 17 living traditional forms, the earliest being a few thousand years old. Our puppetry forms are rooted in rich and diverse narrative versions of the epics and the Puranas or folk tales. Puppetry is usually categorized on the basis of ways of manipulating the puppet – Glove, Rod, String and Shadow Puppets.
all the shadow puppets in India
are made of leather
Togalu Gombeyata (Karnataka) has three kinds of puppets:
- composite images with full scenes from stories
- single character puppets
- moving characters.
Thol Pavai Koothu (Tamil Nadu)
This is performed on a long shadow screen with 21 ghee lamps. Throwing resins in the oil lamps causes the flames to leap creating the effect of collision of arrows.
Chamdyacha Bahulya (Maharashtra)
This is conjectured to be the oldest form.
Ravana Chhaya (Odisha)
The puppets are only black and white.
Tolu Bommalatam (Tamil Nadu)
A single performer with a music accompanist performs the entire show alone, sometimes with as many as 100 puppets.
Tol Bommalta (Andhra Pradesh)
They have amongst the biggest shadow puppets in the world with vibrant colours.
usually miniature representations
of human theatre forms
Pava Kathakali (Kerala)
These travelling glove puppeteers perform in homes during Onam. Their performance includes the story of Bhadrakali and some parts of the Mahabharata or the Puranas.
Benir Putul (Bengal)
This glove puppet form is played outside temples or at melas by one or two performers only. The key characters are Krishna and Radha or the clowns Madan and Pooti.
puppets manipulated with a rod or a stick
Kandhei Nach (Odisha)
All puppetry in Odisha is called Kandhei. ‘Kandhei’ means doll. Kathi Kandhei is Rod Puppets, Sakhi Kandhei and Suta Kandhei are String Puppets.
Dang-er Putul (Bengal)
Jatra scripts are the main narrative of this puppetry form.
puppets manipulated by strings
Kathputlis have no religious or ritual undertones. They tell stories from the court of King Amar Singh Rathod of Nagaur, a 16th century historical character.
Yakshagana Gombeyata and Salakhi Gombeyata (Karnataka)
These employ different techniques. The former is based on Yakshagana performances and the latter has strings attached from the puppets body to a ring on the puppeteer’s head.
Sutrada Gombeyata (Karnataka)
Puppets are 1 meter high and weigh between close 6 and 8 kilograms. They are carved by sculptors from light rot-resistant wood.
Putul Nach (Assam)
The features of the puppets are very close to the idols of gods and goddesses, as the makers of the two are often same.
Koyya Bommalattam (Andhra Pradesh)
These large string puppets, almost 4-5 feet tall, tell the Lava-Kush story.
Tarer Putul (Bengal)
These shows have exquisite multiple painted backgrounds.
Modern puppetry in India emerged in the 1950s-60s, pioneered by Meher Contractor, Raghunath Goswami, Devi Lal Samar, Madhulal Master. Dadi Pudumjee took the form to the next level bringing a fusion of Western technique and Eastern form. Anurupa Roy represents a third generation of modern puppeteers in India.
Anurupa Roy, co-founder of Katkatha, represents a third generation of modern puppeteers in India. She has received formal training from:
- Michael Meschke (Sweden)
- Arne Högsander (Sweden)
- Bruno Leoni, Nini Cuticchio (Italy)
- Neville Tranter (Australian origin lives in Netherlands)
“There has never been a puppet school in India. Traditional Puppeteers are trained within the family, puppeteers like me learn by trial or mostly error. Eventually, one has to go to an international puppet school to learn. While International exposures are great … do they really prepare an Indian puppeteer to be an artist in India?”
~ Anurupa Roy
Anurupa is deeply inspired by the work of modern and traditional puppeteers of India, and has worked closely with many of them, including:
- Dadi Pudumjee’s works through the 80s and 90s Ranjana Pandey’s shows and her pioneering work in the field of puppetry and special needs education.
- Kandhei Nach master Maguni Charan Kuanr.
- Kathputli master Puran Bhatt.
- Masters of Dang-er Putul and their manipulation techniques.
- Togalu Gombeyata master Gunduraju and his philosophy.
Master Puppeteer Gunduraju is the 9th generation of the leather shadow puppet form called Togalu Gombeyata from Karnataka. He is from Hasan, and one of the few in his community still practicing this form.
“A master puppeteer knows his craft, has immersed in the form, has a particular artistic philosophy and embodies his art. Gunduraju is all of the above. One rarely finds a master who wants to seek, learn and give as generously as Gunduraju-ji. I have learnt from him to immerse with the narrative and context. That to be an artist means to understand that the artist is not the form, but only a part of it – the form existed much before us and will continue much after us. This humility is essential to become a conduit for the narrative, let it flow through you. He tells the stories of mythological characters like they are actually living, somewhere next door to him.”
~ Anurupa Roy
Togalu Gombeyata, the form practiced by Gunduraju, is distinctly different from the others in its visual aesthetic. There are three kinds of puppets in the form:
- Jamghat Bavli or composite puppets
- Ekpat Bavli or single puppets
- Hathpheruthali Bavli or moving single puppets with articulated limbs.
The Jamghat Bavli is like a comic book/graphic novel still. The puppet is not one character but an entire scenario.
Togalu Gombeyata stories are usually from the Ramayana, Mahabaharata or the Bhagwat Puran, but peculiar to the Sillakayata community, who are hunters, farmers and leather workers.
“The Sillakayata Mahabharata is different from Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata because it does not talk of the important people alone. It speaks of the common people like the farmer, foot soldier etc, represented through both puppets and the clown commentators, Sillakayata and Bangarakha.”
These narratives have never been written down. They are orally transmitted with additions and commentaries added by each generation. The narrative is key to the design of the puppets. A Jamghat showing Shakuni playing the dice game with Yudishthir has the skeleton of his dead father Subala lying in the background, while the gods and demons are witnesses to the game, that would trigger the apocalyptic war.
The clowns, Sillakayata and Bangarakha, play a key role in this war. They are the link between an old traditional text and the current times. Their jokes, gags and comments keep the audiences engaged and involved. As in other rural performance forms, satire and irreverence provide the sharp social commentary that keep the stories relevant and meaningful.
At the peak of the National Movement the British had restricted the form because of it’s political and seditious undertones. They made a rule that each show must depict British officers. The puppeteers accepted. They made a series of puppets of the British officer on top of very decorated animals. To the British they looked like horses but the audience knew they were donkeys!
Katkatha was started in 1998. For the first 10 years, they gave themselves the mandate to create a new performance each year, but pushing the boundaries of puppetry as they knew it each time. In 2000, a new group of young people joined Katkatha, while many of the older members chose to move on with their careers. The group known as Katkatha today has members who joined back then.
The primary form Katkatha works with is adapted from the Japanese Bunraku. Bunraku is a traditional 500-year old form, from Osaka.
“We have adapted the manipulation technique of the Bunraku form. I learnt it in puppet school in Sweden. We also use it now in our root understanding of the puppet and how to bring it to life. It has become our basic vocabulary for understanding anatomy – the movement in the puppet’s body as understood from our own anatomy, and the role of breath and eyes in simulating life. Even when we don’t use a full-bodied puppet on stage, the anatomy of the puppet stays in our head as the main guideline to simulating life. For example, if the puppet has only two hands and a head, the audience will still be able to ‘see’ the full body because the puppeteer has a clear idea of a body in her/his head.”
~ Anurupa Roy
“For us the relationship between the puppet and the puppeteer is a key aspect. The puppeteer is ever present in the life of the puppet so s/he must be present in the performance with the puppet. They have the most unique relationship, symbiotic and antagonistic, poignant and powerful, joyful and subliminal at the same time.”
~ Anurupa Roy
In India, since independence, there has been a fairly long history of urban artists seeking out rural forms. Often, in this scenario, the rural artist has become a resource for the urban artist’s vision. Equal collaborations have been few and far between.
“I am seeking to explore what a partnership with a traditional master can be. How do we meet each other half way? What is a genuine partnership? How do we dialogue with each other? What can I offer and what can they offer? Many ethical questions emerge? What is usurpation as opposed to collaboration?”
~ Anurupa Roy
“We choose to work with traditional puppeteers because the tradition is our root. As a wise puppeteer once said ‘We use yesterday’s yeast to bake new bread today’. The immersion of the traditional artists with the form, not as something they do but something they live, resonates with me. For me there is one primary reason for performing and that is to connect with an audience emotionally, kinesthetically and sensorially. My primary concern is to move the audience. What moves people has the potential of changing them. Sometimes this is not an intellectual experience. The traditional artist seems to embody this.”
~ Anurupa Roy
In more recent years Katkatha has begun to work with shadow puppetry as well.
“I have also begun working towards my dream of setting up a puppetry school. A school in Europe, Asia or America looks at theory, dramaturgy, practice and direction in their own context. Schools in Russia train puppet manipulators to get jobs in the big state run puppet theatres. Our Indian reality is very different. Once a puppeteer here is trained, s/he must create their own market. The biggest contribution a school could make is in building a philosophical and theoretical puppetry discourse. Neville Tranter, puppeteer and teacher par excellence always says ‘puppet theatre is a precise science, if the puppet moves too much it’s dead, if it moves too little, it’s dead’. I believe this scientific precision needs to be taught.”
~ Anurupa Roy
The first step towards this school was taken in 2014, with the UNIMA* India chapter running masterclasses with masters from Indian traditional forms and Western techniques. People from across India participated.
5 masterclasses have been held till date. In October 2018, Katkatha plans to start its first foundation programme, which will run for 4 months in Delhi and be open to applicants from across India.
“The school is a UNIMA initiative, the first masterclass was a UNIMA India and Katkatha collaboration. Starting a school is my personal quest along with Ranjana Pandey and we are pursuing this quest under the wider umbrella of UNIMA India. We are also the current Executive Committee of UNIMA India.”
*UNIMA – UNION INTERNATIONALE DE LA MARIONNETTE
Today, Katkatha, while continuing to create new productions, also runs its own studio which is slowly but surely growing into a community centre.
Jaitpur Village near Badarpur border at the very edge of Delhi.
The Studio space includes
- a rehearsal space
- a tiny black box with basic lights
- a few rooms for artists to live in
- a workshop where the team builds puppets
- a small garden
- a library for children
- a library with puppet books
- a loo which doubles up as a green room.
The Studio houses:
- trainings and mentorships (national and international) throughout the year
- interns, some of whom shadow Katkatha’s work while others create their own puppetry projects
- open days small performances and exhibitions for the public
- travelling puppeteers and artists who drop by to share home cooked meals, or even stay a couple of nights
- two dogs, Sultan and Sher Khan
- the Sunday Club
The Katkatha Studio is in one of the congested semi-urban spaces which are all too common on the peripheries of Delhi. Mostly populated by migrant labourers, displaced Delhi slum dwellers or erstwhile farmers, now landowners, it is a space of violence, congestion and overall difficult circumstances. The gulli has its own resident drug peddler whose clientele starts at age 12.
“We started keeping our gulli window open during rehearsals, Kalari trainings, so that the community could peep in at anytime. Then inspired by Moloyashree Hashmi’s Sunday library at Janam, we decided to open our doors every Sunday for the children to come in. One year down the line we have 50 children coming in every Sunday from 10.00 am to 1.00 pm to make puppets, do theatre, read books in our (largely donated) library of children’s books. They spend 8 Sundays with one artist ‘didi/bhaiyya’ learning and creating. On the 9th Sunday, we have an open house for the entire community. Our last Open Day had 90 people!! The children have also become our sounding boards. We invite them to watch all our new shows, give feedback, sit through rehearsals. Needless to say, they are our severest critics as the participants of Barbara Kölling’s Mentorship program recently experienced!” ~ Anurupa Roy
Mohammad Shameem, chief puppet maker is trained in sculpture by K. S. Radhakrishnan. Asha, is a papier mache expert. Avinash Kumar and Shamsul are trained in dance under Astad Deboo. Umesh is trained in music. Vivek Kumar and Anand Kumar have acted in several plays. Pawan Waghmare, one of the oldest members of Katkatha, is also a light designer and a jack of all trades. Rahul Moga is a core team member and a trustee. Anurupa Roy is a co-founder and managing trustee at Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust.
“New directors are also emerging in the group. Our main endeavour is to move towards an ensemble, rather than a one director driven space.”
~ Anurupa Roy.
To know more about Katkatha and their ongoing work, visit www.katkatha.org