She speaks in the voice of Magarina, or so she says. Magarina, a 5ft, bright, leafy green crocodile claiming to look like Aishwarya Rai, is the hand puppet engineered by Anurupa Roy, who says, “I don’t know how my real voice sounds like any more. This is Magarina’s revenge on me.”
Roy, 31, is a puppeteer and her job involves stories, imagination and dolls. But puppetry is not only about kids, according to Roy, who will present a child-focused play after a gap of three years at the Seventh Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival in New Delhi. The festival starts today and will be on till 2 February. Winner of the Ustad Bismilla Khan Yuva Puraskar from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and founder of the Kat Katha Puppet Arts Trust, Roy speaks to Lounge about puppetry and her production. Edited excerpts:
Why did you chose to become puppeteer?
I think puppetry chose me. I started when I was 12, and haven’t stopped still. My mother gave me a puppet because I was really a handful as a child. I would keep playing with it incessantly. That turned into shows for friends and the stories got funnier, goofier and crazier. It was a real outlet. In college (Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi), I wanted to hide that I did puppets because it was so uncool. But then I put up a show for a friend who was in the NSS (National Security Scheme). And, it was amazing how well the adults responded. That was the first time that it hit me that this medium disarms people and it really works.
Anurupa Roy with Magarina.
Is puppetry a medium that appeals only to children?
I don’t think that it’s essentially for children. It’s like Ramayan, everyone takes something out of it. But because it’s an accepted medium for children, there are licences. It’s held up as ridiculous and silly, but it’s been used to often register protests, in a very subtle way—as a mask for something that’s essentially for adults. A lot of puppet forms are a miniaturized form of adult theatre. In the West, you had little opera with puppets and you had the main opera. Here, you have the Pava Kathakali and the Kathakali.
How would you convey emotions through a puppet since it’s inanimate?
It’s through movements and breathing. So the (kind of) breath that the puppet uses is what conveys the state of its mind. So, if the puppet is happy or sad or angry, he only has his body to convey it with. One of the most important things recognizable as an emotion is the breathing. So, if I breathe fast with a certain posture, then it translates as anger or excitement, and so on.
Is puppetry all about social messages then?
It’s a fabulous medium to talk about taboo and sensitive subject like HIV, which one can’t talk about. Do it with a puppet and the level of acceptance increases. What works in its favour is that it is considered so non-serious—they’ve got the message, they’re entertained and they haven’t got unduly perturbed.
But this is a negative, too. A lot of puppetry is getting related to social messages. If it’s a puppet show, then it must have a message. But the art for arts sake is not there—that funding doesn’t exist in this country.
How does puppetry compare with other media?
We do interactive shows, because a lot of what children do is passive. So the fact that puppets are sort of alive and pop out, excites them. With a puppet show, it’s one-on-one, it’s intimate, it’s interactive, its tactile.
The Kat Katha team of ‘The Little Blue Planet’.
Very often the animated form and the puppet performance don’t end up looking that different, especially shadow puppets. As somebody said, animation and puppetry are first cousins. Like Little Blue Planet is the kind of puppetry where people have come up and asked us that “Is that animation?” But puppetry is low-cost and all you need is a 100W bulb and a dhoti.
Puppet shows or theatre, what works better with children?
I think its content specific, and it has got nothing to do with the medium, per say. I think actors work better with kids. But if it is visually impacting, then puppets work better.
What style do you work with and do you experiment with different techniques?
I would say mostly rod puppets, inspired from Bunraku, which is a Japanese technique. It has three puppeteers to one puppet giving you access to more parts of the puppet’s body, making it very articulate. Otherwise, it looks dead. Like in About Ram and Little Blue Planet, we’ve used Bunraku. We are also experimenting with shadows with overhead projectors that look like animation, lots of plastic and latex rubber.
Has any puppet show influenced you through the years?
The Ishara festival two years ago had a show from Taiwan called I am another myself. It had faceless white puppets with simple body outlines and bits of paper stuck to give an impression of clothing. It had minimal sound and (yet) had the entire audience of 120-odd people crying. It was a life changing show for me.
How does puppetry in India compare with other countries?
It is not seeping through as much as we would like it to. In the hierarchy of things, it’s still very low. It’s a little bit like theatre used to be, but NSD (National School of Drama) is almost glamorous now. Also, our shows are not written about critically. Abroad, they have proper reviews that either breaks them or makes them. In Japan, puppetry is really high art—economically and socially. In Indonesia, it’s very active, both high art and localized stuff. There are around 4,000 puppeteers, while in India there would be hardly 200.
Roy with two characters from ‘The Little Blue Planet’.
Could you tell us about The Little Blue Planet?
It’s a production on climate change, sponsored by the JSW Foundation and Al Gore’s The Climate Project.
The style is a Bunraku, again. The puppeteers are covered up completely, and are only revealed once or twice. The planet is a little boy with the face of a globe and a broken tooth. We made it a child (instead of “Mother Nature”) because children immediately connect to it. Also, there are little butterflies, little trees and lots of shadow puppets and minimal sounds. No voice at all. The music is both sourced and composed. We’ve actually picked up stuff from Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
The Little Blue Planet will be performed at the India Habitat Centre (IHC), New Delhi, on 2 February, at 6.30pm. The 7th Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival will be held from 27 January to 2 February. Tickets, at Rs100 and Rs200, are available at the IHC programme desk. For more details log on to www.isharapuppet.com
Photographs by Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint