Contemporary puppeteers are creating narratives around complex issues such as farmer suicides and gender
They are exploring newer genres such as object theatre and puppet dance dramas
On 30 June, a story—titled 1..2..Tree—about a dystopian world, featuring a landscape of plastic buildings, sans trees, took centre stage at the Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru. It was a poignant story about climate change and environmental catastrophe, brought to life by puppets from the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, produced by the Sandbox Collective and directed by Anurupa Roy. Even though the story is about a child stumbling upon a sapling and striving to protect it from powerful enemies, the message is targeted at adults.
“What we do as adults today affects children tomorrow. The decision-making power and the choices rest with us. Though it’s a children’s play, the underlying concept is not for them. And this duality is something puppets bring out with a lot of ease," says Roy, who started the trust in 1998. She started performing extensively with HIV-positive patients between 2002 and 2009. She has also used “Puppets For Change" to help women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in areas like Kashmir.
Today, puppeteers like Roy are creating narratives around complex sociopolitical issues such as farmer suicides and gender. “From what I have gathered from my research, the form was never meant for children. Because it was performed for the community, kids were part of the audience," says Roy. Whether it is the Ravana Chhaya from Odisha or Putul Nautch from West Bengal, the content and narrative have always been political at one level and high on spirituality at another.
Many contemporary productions stem from deep personal experiences, with which many adults can relate. Take Delhi-based Avinash Kumar, who is exploring a relatively new genre of puppet dance drama. On the phone, Kumar tells me he initially trained Astad Deboo and Vishwakant Sinha and was initiated was initiated in the art of puppetry by Roy with productions such as About Ram. “I hail from a farmer’s family from Bihar. My father was so heavily in debt he had to mortgage his farms and leave for Punjab to work. I ran away from home at the age of 11 and got associated with the Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi," he says.
Earlier this year, when he decided to work on his maiden production, he was clear about the theme: farmer suicides. Many people told him the subject was too dark, but Kumar felt puppets need not always elicit a chuckle. He has enlisted the help of Mohammed Shameem, who designs puppets for Roy. “We are using masks and the Bunraku style of puppetry, typical to Japan. Since I am trained in Mayurbhanj chhau (a folk dance that originated in Odisha), I am combining those techniques with contemporary dance," says Kumar, who is hoping to stage his production by month-end.
Another new form, which branched out of puppet theatre and is making a distinct space for itself in the world of performing arts is object theatre. “Puppeteers humanized everyday objects by adding eyes or a certain consciousness to them. But what object theatre did was to start connecting objects and their ordinary functions with larger ideas in symbolic and referential ways," says Mumbai-based Choiti Ghosh, who worked with Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre till 2009 and then did a month-long course in object theatre from France’s Institut International de la Marionnette.
What excites her is the way these everyday objects transform when on stage. “One of the first such shows I had seen was on video, called Three Little Suicides, which featured toffee, an Eno tablet and a glass of water. It was a 7-minute non-verbal show, which set the foundation for what object theatre was to become later," says Ghosh. “It provided me with dots and gave me permission to join those dots in my own way with my own story. I found it exciting. Object theatre is about those little epic moments in our lives," she says.
It just has one fundamental principle: You need to justify the presence of the object and why are you using it. Last year, Ghosh did a play called Dhaba with vegetables that she considers a political production. “For us, it was political, for you it could be personal. You could have gone through a situation that these veggies are going through in the play," she says.
Though puppetry has always explored the vibrant world of myths and legends, the contemporary shows delve deeper and talk about the internal struggles of various characters. When it comes to epics like the Ramayan, these shows ask questions such as why Ram gave up Sita, or why he choose to kill Bali and save Sugreev?
These narratives have led to some interesting formats as well. While earlier the puppeteer would be hidden in the dark and the puppets would take centre stage, Roy has brought them both under the spotlight with her production Mahabharata.
“The puppet and the puppeteer have a very strong relationship. When you hide the latter, it takes away from the narrative. By having both on stage, we question the idea of who is manipulating whom and the splits within us as people," she says. The play, which won three Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in 2017, looks at Bhishma’s oath through the prism of Amba. “He said he didn’t want to be king and yet remained close to the throne. He didn’t want children, and ended up raising 105 of them. So, the narrative brings out this duality of Bhishma, who is seemingly true to his oath, but at the end it amounts to nothing," says Roy, who will be showing Mahabharata at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru on 24, 25, 27 and 28 July.