Puppeteer Varun Narain takes bits from the worlds of film, fashion and music to create his puppet shows. He tells Bhumika K. that his stories talk about respecting all individuals, and not labelling them

He is suddenly a seductive apsara with pouty lips and golden flowers in her hair, and then, just as immediately he's a turbaned baba wearing goggles and spouting lines in a baritone about flashing comets and the coming of Jesus. Varun Narain and his puppets seem unconditionally joined at the hip — so inseparable, so seamless, and so into each other's minds and moods.

Yes, I know it's puppets we are talking about here, but watch Varun in action and you'll believe they have a mind of their own. The Delhi-based puppeteer has trod some unusual ground with his life-sized colourful friends trailing along with him. He has taken his hand-held puppets into the adult world, into nightclubs and pubs, into national fashion weeks, into brothels, into workshops — talking of HIV/AIDS awareness, sexual education, women and child empowerment.

His latest production “Into the Box”, which he brought recently to Bangalore on invitation of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), talks of how everyone needs to be respected. “Why are people judged based on the space they are in?... I start off designing each performance with the story — the core of what I want to say. Then the characters develop.”

“Labelling people is unnecessary,” says Varun somewhere in between the interview and it becomes clear that it somehow is the crux of his work — this rebellion against boxing anybody in, or for that matter, out. “It (labelling) builds up a temporary system which ultimately collapses,” he says. “I like to fool around with gender a lot; it bothered me a lot a long time ago…this inclusion or exclusion based on what you do,” he explains how he picks his puppetry subjects. Some of his earlier works concentrated on this — “Bowlful of peals” was a gay-lesbian adaptationof “Swan Lake”. “Liquid Rainbows” explored erotic art and pornography and dealt with freedom of expression and censorship. Critically-acclaimed performances like “The Dusk Bride Melodrama” and “1001 Nights” followed.

Varun is also one of the few “adult” puppeteers in India. “It just happened. I didn't realize that children needed different puppets. Some adults who saw my show were not happy with kids watching it. That's when I realized that there's no sexuality education here, so it is better not to do these shows for children. Now I consciously make a division, but personally I don't think there's a difference,” explains Varun. So initially his shows would work in Europe and in exclusive pockets in Delhi and Mumbai. What helped him mainstream his performances was his chance entry onto the ramp and consequently, the fashion industry. He created Basanti for the second edition of India Fashion Week on Tarun Tahiliani's request and from the world of fashion, his puppets took on a new dimension. “I started making my puppets' bodies disproportionate — you know, designers sketch clothes on disproportionate bodies that way on paper first — and exaggerated some features. It added more motion to the puppets.”

In 2007, he travelled to Switzerland as an artist-in-residence through the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. There he met his “God”, renowned puppeteer Neville Tranter, and worked with him, specially on voice modulation.

A graduate of the MCRC at Jamia Millia Islamia, he was surprised when he was asked soon after he finished college to come back and teach puppetry.

“I haven't had any formal training in puppetry. But all my projects in college used puppetry. It was a childhood passion that turned into a profession. But when I was asked to teach, that's when it struck me that so much can be done with puppetry.” As a grantee with IFA, he developed a performance “Giselle Ki Kahani” based on a 19 century French ballet, re-imagined in an Indian context, and speaking of girls who “at a certain age suddenly vanish, die, or kill themselves”. When he set out with such subjects, he was criticised for making his topics too bold and bringing them out in the open. “My defence was ‘It's only a puppet', but I realised that a lot of information was actually going out through the show.”

Since puppetry alone didn't bring in money, he entered the world of casting for films. “I had to look for faces that fit the character the director had thought out, train them in body language…it taught me a lot — how directors work, and gave me an insight into what works for characters.” He's done some of the casting for films like “Lagaan”, “Kama Sutra”, and “Earth”, among others.

Not many know that Varun was an international concert accompanist who played the sitar. A student of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, he started learning when in school, because he knew he just wanted to play an instrument.

“I was left-handed and dyslexic, and had to get a sitar made to suit me!” he fondly recalls. “When I was in college I had to make a decision between puppetry and music. Today at 43, I think I could have handled both, but back then, I don't think I could…” he laughs.

“All my characters are inspired by music…and even a puppet is only a different kind of instrument,” he reasons how the two worlds so seemingly apart came together.