Kennesaw State University’s “Year of India” program this academic year is part of a tradition that goes back to 1984 with a different country represented each year.
As usual the wide-ranging annual country study program focuses on a particularly country or region with a series of lectures, performances, exhibits and films examining its evolution from its earliest history through the present day.
This year, however, will be somewhat unusual in that there will be a particular focus on the role puppets have played and continue to play in India’s past and present.
To highlight its support of this year’s program, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) has sent nine historical puppets to Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts to augment the center’s international collection.
The center will be partnering with the university’s program, which continued this week with an international yoga day kick off event following this summer’s film festival and guest lectures.
Nagesh Singh, India’s consul general based in Atlanta, hosted a welcoming reception for the puppets at the consulate on Aug. 30, which are a permanent gift to the center where they will be housed in its extensive international collection.
He said that the puppets provided insights into his country’s historical traditions and were expressions of its varied cultures. In addition, he said that the puppets had been donated to promote friendship between India and the Southeast U.S.
Vincent Anthony, the center’s executive director, expressed his gratitude to Mr. Singh and the ICCR, the autonomous organization of the Indian government involved in India’s external cultural relations. The center is to host a number of puppet performances during the course of the academic year as part of its affiliation with the “Year of India” program.
“The nine puppets we received are all representative of traditions we did not previously have in our collection, so this donation helps us have a more complete collection of puppetry traditions and types from India,” he added.
The most unique of the puppets heralded by the center’s staff is a “Nokku Vidya Paava Kali” puppet, which translates to “eye skill doll play.”
Only one person in India today practices this tradition. During a performance she sits with her legs stretched in front of her and tips her head back as she balances a stick with the puppet on her upper lip. A string dangles down from the puppet allowing the figure to be manipulated by her tongue.
India’s sole practitioner Moozhikkal Pankajakshi learned the art from her parents after many hours of training, even starting by balancing baby coconuts on her lip.
While performing she is accompanied by someone who sings along providing humorous anecdotes from the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic central to Hinduism.
Given modern forms of entertainment, it’s no surprise that this skill is becoming obsolete, but in a village environment without other distractions its stories still resonate as they have for thousands of years.
To learn more about the impact of puppet theater on Indians who have grown up in India, Global Atlanta interviewed Gaurav and Ekta Kumar, who are originally from the states of Bihar and Rajasthan.
Mr. Kumar currently is director of special projects and risk management at the Andrew Young Foundation. Both he and Mrs. Kumar had vivid memories of watching puppet shows, which they said often transmitted social values while entertaining children.
Mrs. Kumar said that her earliest memories were of puppets showing the proper way of conducting household chores such as cleaning utensils or dressing appropriately. There also were performances at her school where the puppets would encourage girls to study and to prepare for a successful life.
As an adolescent she would go to fairs with her family where she would witness joyful “kalbaliya” dances, eat local cuisine and see puppet plays often dealing with “Dhola Maru” love stories that she compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Often the plays featured the tales of well-known kings, such as King Vikranaditya, who imparted values of courage and wisdom, she said.
Children, she added, relate to the tales presented by puppets far better than to human actors, and are captivated by the sounds of special instruments and the voices of the puppeteers accompanying performances.
While Rajasthan is considered the heartland for puppetry, Mr. Kumar said that he was exposed to folk tales through puppet shows as he was growing up in Bihar as well. Even later in life before moving to the United States when he was working as a manager of railroad projects in the state of Gujurat, he would visit with the itinerant workers of the Banjara tribe who collected their families at the end of a work day and watched puppet shows.
“They are nomads who go from one project to the next,” he said. “Since they had no television or even radios, they enjoyed the puppet shows with their families,” he recalled.