CHAT R. Kuppuswamy, a ninth generation puppeteer from Tamil Nadu, speaks to HARSHINI VAKKALANKA about a glorious art form which has no takers now

Shadow puppetry has been the family trade in R. Kuppuswamy's family for generations.In his grandfather's days, the family and their trade was so prosperous, that they simply left behind their home and five acres of land in exchange for a nomadic life, filled with performances.

“The art form originated in Thanjavur under the rule of a raja, in whose court my ancestor worked. The head patron of the arts charged my grandfather with teaching people and gave him with four disciples. My grandfather took care of them and once they were ready sent them in four different directions to spread the art,” explains Kuppuswamy, who is now 51.

He says he has not performed in the villages for over 25 years now. “Shadow puppetry was the beginning of entertainment in those parts, those days. At that time, people had nothing else to do for entertainment, so we always had good crowds come to watch us,” he recalls sadly. Now there are hardly any takers for their ticketed performances, which have slowly been replaced by cinema and TV. The duration of his performance too has come down greatly. Now he has taken to teaching.

“I am sometimes invited to conduct workshops for children in schools. For a few years, we worked with the government on awareness programmes for AIDS and polio awareness, now even that has stopped. This is my first performance in 2012,” says Kuppuswamy who was in the city to conduct a workshop in collaboration with Rafiki.

The subjects of his stories have gradually evolved from mythological tales to socially-relevant themes tailored for schools or governments.

The only fixed income his family receives is his father's Kalamamani award-pension fund of Rs. 1,000 every month. “The ancient culture is fading,” he explains. Both he and his aunt, Sundari Rajappa, who accompanies him during the performance with a percussion instrument have tried approaching the local government, asking them to introduce courses in shadow puppetry in educational institutes. They believe this will be an ideal way to pass on the art as well as ensure a monthly income. But, he says, the government has been non-committal in its response.

“We don't know anything else. I cannot work as a labourer because I have no other skills and my health does not allow me to take up hard labour. My children too do not want to take up the family trade.”

But Kuppuswamy wants to ensure that the skill does not die with him. “I am ready to teach. I want to pass on the skill to whomever I can in my lifetime.” He has already sold many of the century-old goat-skin, naturally dyed, puppets made in his grandfather's time, sending them to countries like Germany and U.S.A.

“My lack of education impairs me to perform abroad. And I have no choice but to agree to their terms because I do not understand them.”

They rarely make puppets these days, since goat-skin costs per unit have escalated to Rs. 500 from the 3 annas per piece in his grandfather's time, choosing instead to sell them off and keep only those that they need.

“Earlier we could procure goat-skin from the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai. Recently, they stopped supplying. Now we buy our leather from Andhra Pradesh. Their puppets are not as expensive as their leather and they are willing to sell them. But everybody will be able to identify that the puppets are theirs and not ours.”

He believes that puppet masters in other states are better off.

“This is an artform born in Tamil Nadu and it's not being respected in its own homeland. We had more than 10 performers on our troupe. But we all split up. Our performances in villages go for as low as Rs. 50, so how do we pay them?”

R. Kuppuswamy can be contacted at 9941869480.