IT entrepreneur Vir Nanda welcomes visitors to the Indian Puppets exhbition at the Center for Puppetry Arts.

A special exhibition of Indian puppets at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts is anchoring a series of events using the art form to shed light on the country’s culture. 

“Indian Puppets: The Great Stories and Dancing Dolls” runs through March 18 and is the backdrop for special events at the center, starting with Jan. 20 India Family Day.

Then on Feb. 3 comes a screening of the film “Tomorrow We Disappear,” the dramatic portrayal of an artist colony in Delhi being banned due to urban development. The series culminates in a March 26 lecture by Kathy Foley, an authority on puppetry around the world, who will provide an overview of India’s current puppetry scene and its traditions.

Global Atlanta recently caught up with Dr. Foley via email to learn about puppetry’s role in global cultures and how the local India exhibition stacks up to collections around the world:

Dr. Foley overseeing a shadow puppet being made.

Global Atlanta: Please evaluate the Indian permanent puppet collection of the center’s Worlds of Puppetry Museum.

Dr. Foley: The collection is blessed with examples collected by major American puppeteers such as Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin who taught puppetry in India on a Fulbright in the 1960s and Melvyn Helstien, who did research around 1980s spearheading puppet performances at the Smithsonian American Folklife festival, as well as pieces that museum founder Nancy Staub collected in at a large festival in New Delhi around 2002 celebrating 50 years of the national arts academy (Sangeet Natak, founded in 1952).

This means the Center for Puppetry Arts (CPA) has historically important examples from great puppet masters of the last century, traditions that are now sometimes struggling for survival in the digital age.  However, there were still many traditional genres and contemporary urban puppetry that were still lacking when we started planning the exhibit.  The amazing thing is that Staub made up a list at the beginning of the planning of all the important genres she wanted to add to the permanent collection.

With the help of Vir Nanda, an IT entrepreneur based in the Atlanta area, other members of the Atlanta Indian-American community, Indian Consulate General in Atlanta, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which promotes exchange and learning about India around the globe, the permanent collection has now grown and is representative of areas and genres we did not have in the collection before.

This is wonderful and will mean the center has the materials to do much better education and display of the rich diversity of Indian materials even after the exhibit comes down. This exhibit is a quantum leap  in the collection and has resulted in a huge learning curve for curators and museum personnel and, we hope, for families and school groups that will visit throughout the year. CPA now in its permanent galleries can show more regional differences as well as modern pieces. The collection’s breadth has  grown exponentially.

Examples of the puppets at the Center for Puppetry Arts’ India exhibition. (Photo © 2017 Chris Hunt)

Global Atlanta: I suppose that you have seen the incredibly moving film “Tomorrow We Disappear.” We visited the Kathputli Colony earlier this year, but are not really aware of what is the current situation. There was some discussion of the development of an arts center. Can you bring us up to date about the current status of the colony?

Dr. Foley: In October the demolition was carried out. Many of the people had already moved into some alternative housing. A reporter from one of the Indian newspapers said, “officials showed me a sample 30.5-square-meter flat located behind the now-demolished headquarters of the Bhule Bisre Kalakar Co-operative Industrial Society, a compound that used to be a workshop for craftspeople. All these people will get such flats in the redeveloped Kathputli Colony. In the meantime (the two years while these EWS flats are built in Kathputli Colony), everyone is supposedly to get alternative housing in the communities of Anand Parbat and Narela.” [Read more here]

Emails from friends note that public opinion has remained somewhat divided—the land was never “purchased” and the colony was “squatting” on what was once an open area in the city that has become prime real estate over the years in a great world capital.  Some people have wanted the colony to stay, others have argued that new housing can be better designed for health and so on.

Residents of the Kathputli Colony prepare to move out of their homes. Many of the puppets are packed away in their bags.

The publicity around the group and the film itself have certainly helped the group get support and kept them in place since the 2009 announcement that the colony will be moved.  For the craftsmen-artists perhaps the shift will provide space and community to create the wares they sell nationally, to tourists, and internationally—it is unclear that the location will be a drawback.

Global Atlanta: For the performing artists the movement further from places they often perform may not work well, right?

The most distressing thing that figures discuss in the film is the disruption of the community. The government argues the long-term effects will be positive and the right of people to space and funding to relocate seems to be acknowledged, but the long term effects will only be seen with time. But it is indeed happening now.  

Global Atlanta: What I find so fascinating about the exhibition is that it looks both back in time but also gives a sense of how puppets can be used today and in the future. What do you think will be the role of puppets in the future?

Dr. Foley: India is a very interesting example of very old traditions with deep cultural roots and also, in the cities the major 20th century implementation of the art in education and social interventions (Anurupa Roy’s work on women in war zones like Kashmir or Ranjana Pandey’s use of puppets in disability programs or saving birds when pesticides mess up the environmental balance). Then there are artists with the most avant garde-Bauhaus-like shapes, such as Dadi Pudumjee who takes us into the realm of multi-dimensions and visual-musical journeys that is world class object theatre. Dadi, of course, does a large puppet festival in New Delhi each March, a great time to see avant garde work.

Shankhadjeet De, meets with Dadi Pudumjee, founder of the Ishana Puppet Theatre Trust in Delhi.

The U.S. has things like Punch and marionettes, but we lack a puppet theatre that for centuries has told the great stories like the epic Ramayana (once a year in performances dedicated to and for the gods) and our puppet shows rarely sing the songs of 16th century poet-saints or tell passionate stories of love like the story of Krishna and his beloved Radha.

What is interesting about India is that the new artists—and this includes traditional artists like Puran Bhat featured in “Tomorrow We Disappear” are working in tandem with the modern and socially applied puppeteers to bring puppetry into the future.  These groups work with NGOs and foundations. They are making great art and educating on social justice at the same time. India is an area where art is great, but not separated from the struggle for social justice or building a civil society.

Global Atlanta: The exhibition also opened our eyes to the works of Anurupa Roy, Puran Bhat, Dadi Pudimjee and Ranjana Pandey. Have I missed any?

Dr. Foley: I only wish we had a larger space—as with the regional styles we are only scratching the surface and not (due to the small space) able to show you the whole of the many modern artists.  The people you name above have been the most active in New Delhi in helping bring tradition and modernity together, but there are others. Ramachandra Pulavar (the son of a Kerala shadow puppet maker represented in the exhibit) is doing wonderful shadow shows on Mother Teresa for the strong (and ancient) Christian community of Kerala.

Famed puppeteer Puran Bhat at his home in the Kathaputli Colony.

There are others, like Anupama Hoskere from Bangalore (a trained engineer) with her troupe Dhaatu (Roots) who is reviving and expanding the marionette tradition of Bangalore (Karnataka state), and creating a major annual festival (some of her figures are in the exhibit), and we did not even talk (due to space, objects) about Suresh Dutta, a great Bengali master puppeteer who studied with Sergie Obratsov in Russia and then founded the Calcutta Puppet Theatre (Bengal in the 1960s-70s had a Marxist state government which meant that there was lots of exchange with Eastern European puppetry during the Cold War)—the Center’s donors like Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin were more likely to work with and collect in the more U.S.-leaning areas of the Cold War era—the chances of collection that reflect the realities of when and how we got our objects.

There are many more stories—India is big, diverse, and vibrant. Puppetry is alive and always moving.

Global Atlanta: I had the pleasure of meeting Shankajeet De and have seen portions of his documentary on the “Ravan Chhaya.” Visitors to the exhibition can see examples of this form of puppetry. Have you seen the documentary and if so, what’s your opinion?

Dr. Foley: I think this documentary is a good example of the kinds of experimentation that you see going on all over India.  The traditional Ravan Chhaya of Orissa was rougher in the documentation that was made of this form in the 1970s by master discussed in the film (Kathinanda Das). But what you see in the film is new, young artists taking the ideas and being inspired by the lines and images and doing something linked to the past but also new. You see this in digital arts too (using puppet traditions for inspiration and then doing new animation by contemporary artists that tweaks and extends).

It is this reinvention and extension of traditions that is vital to these arts, which carry great stories and challenging ideas. 

An example of a shadow puppet performance.

The night the exhibit opened the current Indian consul general (Nagesh Singh) was saying the images reminded him of his childhood in a village where shadow play was an important entertainment. He said it with nostalgia, but also pride. It is so important for our young  Indian-American youth in the U.S. and their schoolmates to know these great stories, see these beautiful sculptures and share. 

These are now American stories too and great materials for young artists to work with in making shadow figures, dimensional puppets, stop-motion and whatever. The heroes and demons are the intangible cultural heritage of India, of course, but also the intangible cultural heritage of humanity — of Atlanta too. These stories and arts have been danced and sung by story masters for a thousand years. I hope that wandering in the exhibit can spur Atlanta’s young artists and make them think what techniques or stories they can transform just as the young people from Orissa in Shankhajeet De’s film or people like Puran Bhat in “Tomorrow We Disappear” are studying, extending and remaking tradition for themselves.

Global Atlanta: Why should the general public in Atlanta visit the exhibition and participate in its activities?

Dr. Foley: India is one of the great and seminal world cultures.  It has had enormous impact on China, Southeast Asia and beyond. The 18th century German renaissance with Goethe and all his friends was inspired by Indian encounters.

[pullquote]We are living in a global world and wider visions are what we need.  Our world is full of diversity, and the visions that might get from a puppet show are bigger than we might have imagined.[/pullquote]

Yale’s library was established by Elihu Yale’s gift while he was a colonial officer in India.  Our current IT industry is deeply interlinked with India and a whole young generation of Indian-Americans is emerging in American TV, dance, comedy, and so many venues. India is not really distant/different. It is here too. The stories represented in these puppet shows are being danced and sung every weekend in performances that are happening in the Bay area or any big city in the States. We know Shakespeare and the National Theatre in London and Punch’s Progress; we also need to know the Ramayana and Bollywood and the politics of Kashmir.  These are also parts of  and deeply interlinked with our American world. 

An addition the the Center’s permanent India collection of puppets.

We are living in a global world and wider visions are what we need.  Our world is full of diversity, and the visions that might get from a puppet show are bigger than we might have imagined.

You can look at this work as a visual inspiration, you can peek behind to think about what having 10 heads or 20 arms really means and think how our images of superheroes (or super villains) correspond.

You can think of animal-like surrogates (monkeys and bears in the Ramayana) that may have some comparison to our American dog icon of old, Lassie, or figures like that lizard-like ET).

Look at the beautiful figures and polished surfaces or look deep behind. Looking will lead you into deeper understanding of this global culture that we share. The ‘other’ is not far away or long ago. These are stories of neighbors and so they are our stories as well. Learn and grow.

Kathy Foley, who curated the exhibition, is a Fulbright scholar and a professor of theatre at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She teaches in the Theatre Arts Department and has also taught at the University of Malaya, the University of Hawaii, Yonsei University, and Chulalongkorn University. She is author of the Southeast Asia section of Cambridge Guide to World Theatre and editor of Asian Theatre Journal.