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How long does it take to animate a log of wood? For the answer, it is best to retrace the history of a young Narasingh Rao, who, in the late 1800s, happened to watch a team of puppeteers perform a show at a temple. Puppetry was a significant form of entertainment, and temple-based art was popular with villagers and the royal court alike. This particular team hailed from Kudur, or Turagapuri as it was called then, in present-day Karnataka. Using 3ft-tall, beautifully clad wooden puppets, the villagers told the story of Satyabhama, the charming but jealous wife of Lord Krishna. Rao was enamoured and decided to learn puppetry from them.

He had to make his own puppets and prepare a repertoire for shows. He translated the Bhama Kalapam, written in Telugu by the 14th century scholar and Kuchipudi doyen Siddhendra Yogi, into Kannada as Sri Krishna Parijatham.

Since the shows usually begin with Vinayak puja (a prayer to Lord Ganesh), Rao must have started with carving the puppet of Ganesha, the elephant-head god.

He used aale maraa (ivory wood), which has few grains, a requisite for puppet-making. After rubbing it smooth with tools, an outline would have been drawn and the extra wood cut away before the features and details were chiselled. He is then likely to have applied a binder adhesive (made by boiling maravajra, a natural adhesive, in water) and rubbed the puppet’s surface smooth. Natural colours were applied. The entire process would have taken about three and a half months.

That puppet can be still seen, about 150 years later, in the house of the 86-year-old acharya (teacher) M.R. Ranganatha Rao, Narasingh Rao’s grandson. On the day we visit his house, the 3ft-tall maroon-hued puppet, with its hands in the mudra position, is resting on a divan in their modest living room.

RETURN TO ROOTS

The puppet, however, nearly didn’t see the light of day. The tradition of puppetry had stopped with Narasingh because his son preferred the stable life of a government schoolteacher to the nomadic one of a puppeteer. Narasingh’s son-in-law, Rangaiyya, wasn’t interested either.

Rangaiyya’s son, Ranganatha, a schoolteacher, had also trained in theatre. Around 1977-78, Ranganatha happened to be at a function at Ravindra Kalakshetra that social reformer and crafts patron Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was attending. There, she spoke of Narasingh Rao, hailing him as Karnataka’s first master puppeteer. Ranganatha was awestruck. “Until then, I hadn’t taken his craft seriously," he says.

Ranganatha remembers taking Chattopadhyay to their village, Mudigere, in her car—“I could only afford a bus ticket"—and introducing her to his grandfather, who was around 95 then. “She was thrilled to see him and his puppets." Mudigere is about 200km from Channapatna town, famed for its handmade lacquered wooden toys.

When they returned to Bengaluru, Chattopadhyay asked Ranganatha to promise her that he would take up puppetry. “I put my hand in hers and promised," he recalls. The 45-year-old went to live with his grandfather, learning the traditional style, bommalatta, where puppets are manipulated with a combination of rods (salaki) and strings (sutra).

Traditional south Indian puppets come in three styles: the string puppets, which are light and easy to wield, like the gombeyatta in Karnataka; the rod puppets, or kittale bommegalu; and bommalatta. When he was ready to perform independently, Ranganatha used his theatrical background to rewrite Sri Krishna Parijatham to create a greater sense of drama. Over the years, he has held puppet shows across the world, in countries like Japan, Australia and Switzerland (where he lived for a few years). He estimates that he would have carved at least 2,000 puppets, several of which are now in museums. His repertoire today has two more main acts; Sri KrishnaTulabhara and Narakasura.

“I decided to spread the art in our villages, where it was dwindling," he says.

On the day we visit, there are three other puppets, carved by Ranganatha, sitting beside the Ganesh puppet. He introduces them as Narakasura (representing raudra, or anger), Krishna (veera, or brave) and Nathi (who performs the lasya, divine goddess dance). Two of his sons—Vijay, who makes and plays puppets, and Srinivas, a puppet player—are home. Ranganatha’s third son, Chitrakumar, works in the field of information technology but is well-versed in puppet-making.

The performing puppet team led by father and sons, called Rangaputhali, includes extended family members and trainees, totalling 10. They perform shows in schools and at corporate functions. The objective guru observes that his sons are still not as quick as him.

Srinivas picks up Narakasura by clamping two rods through its hands. He puts on the iron headband, with three strings attached to it, to manipulate the puppet better. “The three strings symbolize the Trinity," he points out.

With the puppet firmly in his grasp, he performs the Yakshagana dance form, using the rods to move the puppet’s hands. “We have learnt the dance from Yakshagana dancers," he says, adding that they are also versed in Kuchipudi, which is required for Sri Krishna Parijatham. Srinivas’ neck strains under the weight of the puppet, which is around 8kg. As he moves his head and hands, it seems as though Narakasura is performing the age-old traditional dance of coastal Karnataka.

In a formal setting, the puppets would be in the line of sight of a seated audience and the puppeteer would be behind a screen. “Our father has taught us the basic tenets of bommalatta," says Srinivas. “The puppets must always face the audience, even during dialogue delivery, the rods mustn’t come in front of their face, and the puppets should always remain within the frame of the curtain."

A GENEROUS TEACHER

While they trained under their father from a young age, Ranganatha teaches anyone who is genuinely interested. “He is magnanimous and welcomes anyone who shows interest, not just family members," says Anupama Hoskere, who is a historian, co-founder of the organization Dhaatu Puppets and an accomplished puppeteer herself. In the mid-1990s, when she wanted to learn puppetry, it was Ranganatha’s name that would come up as the “go-to" acharya.

It was two years before he actually started training her in the art. “After observing and learning from him for a year or so, we did a Nala Damayanti show. At the end of it, he told me, ‘Okay, that’s pretty much all I have to teach you.’ However, we keep in touch. Even now, he calls me on the phone and he usually begins with, ‘I have a plan,’" she laughs.

Other big names in puppetry, like Dattatreya Aralikatte, who has won a National Award, are his students. Ranganatha himself was the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1981 for spreading the art and even devising a way to make moulded puppets easily. But he takes pride in the teams he is training across the state. For, as he remarks, the art won’t survive unless you pass it on. He trained the 10-member women’s team at Mulbagal, in Kolar district, who call themselves the Putthali Pratishtana Puppet Team. He has trained about 10 teams in Bengaluru and is currently training one in Mysuru. He is also a mentor for research students, who mine his vast knowledge of puppets.

New MOVES

With age catching up, Ranganatha has been experimenting with ways to create an interest in puppetry other than performing with heavy puppets. He and his sons conduct workshops on puppetry.

Since wood carving is a laborious and specialized skill, Ranganatha has devised a way to make lightweight moulded puppets. Vijay takes us to a small outhouse behind their house, where they make puppets with a sawdust mixture paste that is put in prepared moulds. Taking about a week to complete, significantly less than earlier, the puppets—painted in acrylic colours and decorated in colourful costumes—are ready for shows.

Srinivas picks up a set of six 1ft-tall, finely decorated puppets attached to a light circular hoop with strings. With a practised twirl of the hoop, he manipulates them in a circle, like the garba dancers of Gujarat or the kolaata of Karnataka. “With a rod and string puppet, it is unimaginable to manipulate more than one puppet," he says.

Rangaputhali has also adapted new stories that are simpler to understand than the Sri Krishna Parijatham, delving into the Hindu philosophy of atma and paramatma, or the soul and the universal self. “We do Tenali Rama stories and other short stories even though we believe that mythology is never outdated," says Srinivas.

Ranganatha and his sons believe puppetry continues to offer immense entertainment in an age of technology.

The young members of the family are beginning to show interest. “My 11-year-old daughter is also learning to be a puppeteer," Vijay says. His cousin sister’s grandson travels with him and works as a rangoli and setdesigner.

But the life of a puppeteer is one of struggle. Ranganatha rues that there are no special theatres for puppet shows, nor is there regular patronage. But one of the main life lessons puppetry has taught him is that human beings too, just like puppets, are manipulated by unseen hands. “We do what we are destined to do."

Rao overseeing the stringing of puppets at a workshop in Mysuru. Photo: Ranganatha Rao
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Rao overseeing the stringing of puppets at a workshop in Mysuru. Photo: Ranganatha Rao
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