Muthulakshmana Rao sees God in his leather puppets and says puppetry is his religion

On this sultry afternoon, the auditorium at Madura College is packed with students. Slowly the cacophony dies except for the whirring of fans, the lights go off and all that can be seen is a faint bulb that glows behind the translucent screen on stage. A.R. Muthulakshmana Rao takes the stage behind the screen with his three sons.

Drums beat and the bells ring. “Hahahaa!” laughs Muthulakshmana into the mic and the hall resonates. Soon, a puppet joker appears on the screen, sings, dances, juggles and entertains. Sitting behind the screen is Muthukumar, the eldest of the three brothers who animate the puppets. He pulls and shakes the strings and the puppets move.

During the one-hour show, Kishkintha Kaandam of Ramayana, Muthulakshmana Rao speaks in ten different voices and nearly two dozen puppets come on the screen. To make the story come alive, the puppeteer often plays the dholak, tappu, mridangam, urimi melam and paavar, a bamboo whistle used to create 10 different sound effects.

Five generations of Muthulakshmana Rao’s family have performed with leather puppets in Tamil Nadu. His ancestors migrated from Maharashtra to the Tanjore delta hundreds of years back in search of a livelihood. Today, apart from the Tamil-adulterated Marathi he speaks, only his surname gives away his origin.

“Our ancestors came in the time of King Serfoji,” he says. “Later, King Thirumalai Nayak also brought us further down south to Madurai. We basically belong to a nomadic community and in olden days, we used to camp in villages and stage puppetry shows. The villagers used to adopt our families and we were paid in kind. People used to gift rice sacks and goats for our performances.”

Sacred art form

According to Muthulakshmana, leather puppetry was considered a sacred art form in earlier times. “Villagers believed that Ramayana staged over 20 days would bring rain. We always considered the puppets as our Gods and the craft as our religion. We used to fast for 10 days before staging Ramayana,” he recalls. “And believe it or not, on the final day when the show concludes with pattabhishekam scene of Lord Rama, the skies used to pour.”

Muthulakshmana opens a sack and nearly 400 puppets pop out in bright colours sparkling with chamkis and sequins. Showing a leather-made Ravana, he says, “This was made by my grandfather and it is over 100 years old.” The stitches on the puppet speak to its age. “The puppets we create outlive us and this is our pride and treasure.”

“Three decades back, there were nearly 150 families who performed leather puppetry shows,” says Muthukumar. “The men operated the puppets while women sang and spoke dialogues. But today, we are the only family left in the entire state. The deterioration of the craft started in 1980s when TV invaded households. From then, the craft has been neglected and even the government has done nothing to preserve the art form.”

Light and shadow

Tamil Professor Rathina Kumar of Visual Arts Centre in Madura College says, “The whole concept of leather puppetry emerged from the myriad images created by shadows of palm leaves in the lights of theepandhams. The craft wasn’t brought from Maharashtra but it was started here by this migrant community and went back up north and hence is essentially a Tamil craft form. In the 17th and 18th centuries, leather puppetry was patronised by kings.”

Rathina Kumar adds, “The tradition of adopting these families was called ‘Keethari’. The villagers took turns in providing the puppeteers their needs every month. Now, these families are deprived of livelihood and have lost their audience.”

Muthulakshmana Rao says that to revive interest innovations in the craft are necessary. “I even tried staging stories on social and cultural issues. We also staged awareness campaigns on modern-day issues, but it didn’t help much.”

Though cinema was one of the reasons for leather puppetry’s gradual decline, it has also become a platform for showcasing the art. Muthukumar performed a segment in the film Dasavatharam. “The offer helped us gain some fame though we were paid only Rs. 8000. We taught actress Asin to perform puppetry for the song ‘Mukunda Mukunda’.” He adds, “We hardly get two shows monthly and earn barely Rs.2000 for a show. Recently, we have also performed a five-minute sequence in the film Pachai Kaathu and we were given Rs.4000.”

Apart from the show days, Muthukumar and his brothers Ramkumar and Kalimuthu sell plastic wares on push carts. “Our kids will definitely not take up leather puppetry,” he says. “We want them to study and take up decent jobs. The government should release funds to promote leather puppetry like other art forms, only then people like us may survive. We have knocked on many doors but in vain.”