The Center for Puppetry Arts’ exhibition of Indian puppets provides insights into India’s past as well as its future. Its past, because puppetry shows were the main form of community-based entertainment across the country’s vast cultural landscape, and its future because its film and documentary industry draws on the country’s diverse cultural traditions.
Both in the past and in the present, puppet productions — whether in the central square of a rural village, in an abandoned park of a teeming city or an established theater — have expressed codes of social behavior and spiritual guidance through dramatic storytelling. The range of puppetry arts is extensive, from ritual performances to contemporary puppetry to raise environmental consciousness and social issues. The puppets themselves come in many forms including string, glove, rod and shadow puppets that have evolved over thousands of years.
The center’s “Year of India” was launched in November with a performance of a morality tale titled “The Flower of Good Fortune” from the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic poem and mythological history dating as far back as 800 BC.
Five performers dressed in simple white robes not only manipulated the glove puppets dressed in bright costumes but also filled the center’s theater with their carnatic chants and the lively sounds of their instruments including a drum, a gong, cymbals and the lordly conch.
The performance’s theme revolved around the morality tale of the pursuit of wealth by a courtier on behalf of a beautiful queen. The bold and daring courtier promises his beloved that he will return with a priceless possession represented by a rare and precious flower.
Before he can obtain the flower, however, he faces many obstacles and challenges through which he is humbled and learns humility. Once he accepts his newly found wisdom, he is able to obtain the flower with the help of his brother and return to his beloved a wiser, more spiritual devotee.
On the surface, the tale may resemble a Harlequin romance, but entwined in the puppet’s movements and accompanying narration emerge key concepts of Hinduism wrapped in “purusartha,” or the “object of human pursuit.” The purusarthas include “artha,” or the pursuit of economic success and prosperity, which is tempered by “dharma,” righteousness and moral values. If “dharma” is ignored, then “artha” and “kama,” representing pleasure and love, lead to social chaos.
The centre’s performance by the Natana Kairali, troupe, which is reviving traditions of the small, southwestern state of Kerala, marked the opening of the exhibition of Indian puppetry at the center’s World of Puppetry section.
The section’s global collection celebrates puppetry traditions in major cultures from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, demonstrating the use of the art form as a teaching and communications tool.
Kathy Foley, the exhibition’s curator, praised the growth of the Indian collection, which has received additional puppets as gifts from Vir Nanda, an information technology entrepreneur in Atlanta, the Indian Consulate General here, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which promotes exchange and learning about India around the world.
Dr. Foley added that the current exhibit represents “a quantum leap” by showing regional differences among the puppets as well as modern pieces and has resulted in what she termed “a huge learning curve for curators and museum personnel as well as the family and school groups that will visit throughout the year.”
The centre’s “Year of India” is to run through the end of March 2018 including: a celebration of India Family Day on Saturday, Jan. 20, with puppet building activities; the Feb. 3 screening of the film “Tomorrow We Disappear,” the documentary about Kathputli, the colony of artists magicians, acrobats and puppeteers, who are being pushed out of their community in India’s capital, Delhi, by urban development and the “Explore Puppetry Series: Puppetry of India,” to be highlighted by Dr. Foley’s lecture on the diversity of India’s puppetry art with works featured in the exhibition by some of India’s most renowned puppeteers such as Anurupa Roy, Puran Bhat, Dadi Pudumjee and Ranjana Pandey.
Anurupa Roy designs puppets and directs puppet theater. Her view of puppetry transcends the layperson’s initial understanding of merely “manipulating dolls with strings” into a lively mix of sculptures, masks and even found objects that join music and movement in a space where humans and puppets become co-actors in a theater production.
“If the audience does not believe that the puppet is alive, it is not,” she says defiantly.
Her group which she started in 1998 is registered as the Kathkatha Puppet Arts Trust, and is no longer limited to ancient tales. Her puppets range from three inches to 40 feet and have toured across Europe, Japan and South Asia.
The performances often are aimed at initiating dialogue and generating awareness in the areas of health and conflict resolution. Her puppets have performed before youth and women across the country to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and gender issues. Performances also have dealt with conflicts such as that in Kashmir.
She traces her interest to puppetry arts by watching as a child the performances of masters such as Dadi Pudumjee, whose work also is represented in the exhibition, and international puppet companies that passed through Delhi when she was a child. She also attended the puppet school at Dramatist Institutet at the University of Stockholm in Sweden.
Mr. Pudumjee is the founding member of The Ishana Puppet Theatre Trust in Delhi. He was the artistic director of India’s first modern puppet theater repertory company, the Sutradhar Puppet Theatre at Delhi’’s Sri Ram Centre for Art and Culture between 1980 and 1986. Since 2008, he has been the first non-European president of the world puppet body UNIMA — Union International de la Marionette.
Much as the traditional puppet shows inculcated social mores among the young, the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust has provided awareness to marginalized youth of the misuse of drugs. It also provides training to youth to attain a livelihood and augment their level and education in cooperation with the Salaam Baalak Trust, a non-governmental organization that provides support services for for more than 3,500 street children and adolescents in Delhi.
Puppets also have been used in working with intellectually disabled youth and in programs focused on ecological issues, endangered species, income generation, sanitation, health and violence against women.
Those who have passed through the program are the beneficiaries of learned skills such as making glove and string puppets, clay modeling, dialogue delivery, body language dance and various aspects of stage craft and musical skills.
The filmaker Shankajeet De, who first made a documentary of Mr. Pudimjee’s life, recently won India’s National Award for the Best Arts/Cultural Film, for his feature length documentary of the shadow puppetry form from the Odisha state located on India’s eastern border.
The shadow puppet form dates back to the 18th century. Based on episodes in poems by a local poet the flat puppets — figures of human, animals and even trees which are made generally from deer skin — are projected from the back of a curtain screen by oil lamps.
This form is known as “Ravan Chhaya,” and a performance may require as many as 700 puppets with several puppets used to depict a diversity of moods for individual characters. The puppets, which range from six inches to two feet in height, are attached to bamboo poles. Examples of the form are on display at the center’s exhibition.
Ranjana Pandey managed to take puppetry performances out of the square and theatres into television with the creation of an 18-episode series for children, “Free and Open,” telecast by India’s national broadcasting corporation.
While puppetry arts are becoming involved and increasingly influencing India’s media, their traditional skills still can be witnessed by masters such as Puran Bhat, who is originally from Rajasthan, the state bordering Pakistan on India’s northwestern side.
Fifty years ago a community of artists from Rajasthan moved to Delhi where they formed the Kathputli Colony in Delhi, which is the subject of the film “Tomorrow We Disappear,” which is to be screened at the centre on Feb. 3.
The film traces the harrowing situation of some 1,500 artists families including puppeteers, magicians, jugglers, puppet sculptors, sword swallowers, tight rope walkers and acrobats all being pushed out of their community to make way for a skyscraper and apartment complex.
While the Kathputli Colony is widely recognized as a slum, many of its inhabitants, although not all, consider it a special enclave where their arts have thrived and been passed down through the generations despite its narrow streets, lack of sewage facilities, small homes and overcrowded conditions.
“This is how we used to live,” Mr. Bhat told Global Atlanta during a visit to his home, demonstrating his skill manipulating a string puppet, a tradition for which Rajasthan is well-known. By moving a puppet’s hand across its cheek, Mr. Bhat can bring the inanimate object alive. He can provoke a wide range of emotions by manipulating the strings and has performed around the world at the invitation of cultural organizations which have appreciated his skill.
At the opening performance of “The Flower of Good Fortune,” Nagesh Singh, India’s consul general based in Atlanta, said that the images he saw at the exhibition reminded him of this childhood in a village where a shadow play was an important entertainment.
He added that he said this with nostalgia as well as pride. In Dr. Foley’s view “It is 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.”
To read a Global Atlanta interview with Dr. Kathy Foley, the curator of the “Great Stories and Dancing Dolls” exhibit, click here.