R. Bhanumathi has given a new colour to her passion for puppetry. She speaks to Anusha Parthasarathy about combining entertainment with social issues

R. Bhanumathi and I have high tea with a lively bunch; there’s kurta-pyjama clad Tinku, big-eyed Makku, fluorescent Zippy, the amicable Khan Chacha with his long beard and Curly Kavitha. As their chatter dies down, Bhanumathi, who brings them to life and runs the Pavai Centre for Puppetry, steps into the limelight.

Born and brought up in New Delhi, Bhanumathi came to Chennai in the early 1980s with her father. While she came to terms with the city’s culture and whereabouts, a friend asked her to make puppets. “I had some experience in knitting but my studies were all related to home science. But I read up and made a few puppets and sent it to her. I then went around with pictures of those puppets and people asked me to make more. It’s been 30 years now,” she smiles, as she gently places Tinku on her lap.

Puppetry soon became a passion along with her other love, wildlife. She became an education officer with the WWF and used puppetry for environment education. “Both my passions began to work together. I would conduct workshops on turtle protection, conservation issues and other environment-based topics using puppets. A puppet can be used to approach sensitive issues in a way other modes of communication can’t be. I also use puppets to sensitise children on sanitary issues as well,” she says.

While she grappled with wildlife, puppetry and her home science background, she decided to do her Ph.D. on Shadow Puppetry. “Seven years and three universities later, I finally got my research registered with the Gandhigram Rural University in Dindugal,” she exclaims, “I did my research on the status of shadow puppetry and puppeteers in South India. I tried to understand why this art form is vanishing and found that except in Kerala, where shadow puppetry is given as an offering to goddess Bhagavathi, it was in a bad state in the other three States. The puppeteers, who are Maharashtrians settled here, were looking for alternative employment and letting this art form go. I decided something had to be done about this and Pavai Centre for Puppetry was born in 2005.”

Bhanumathi applied her knowledge of puppetry in a different way and left her 15-year run with WWF. “I’m not a performer but a trainer. I weave puppetry into therapy, skill development, costume designing, expression, hobbies and I’ve sustained it for seven years.” But it has taken a while for people to accept her as a professional trainer. “They could never understand why I call this my profession. But now, they see the effort I have put into this.”

Her workshops allow people to connect through puppets, helping them overcome shyness and stage fright. “Puppets are very therapeutic but this aspect has not been explored. It is because you give life to a puppet. Without your voice, it is dead. And since others concentrate on the puppet and not you, the stage is no longer intimidating,” she adds, “I conduct workshops for children and am planning to conduct more for senior citizens. The joy that puppet making brings to them makes me feel happy about what I’m doing. I also train primary school teachers in story telling and older children in theatre and visual arts through puppetry.”

Puppetry is a lively medium provided you allow yourself to be in the background and let your puppet do all the talking. “In the aftermath of the tsunami, Wetlands International put me on a project where I trained fisherwomen to make jute puppets. A selection of these were part of an exhibition by the Augsburger Puppet Theatre Museum in Germany and now remain in their museum. Some of my golu puppets are also part of the exhibit. I even ran a full-fledged puppet theatre inside the Crocodile Bank for four years.”

Bhanumathi takes her golu puppets to exhibitions and was recently part of the World Craft Council’s ‘Kaivalam’ but her puppets are not for sale. “I’m only a trainer and I make puppets for my workshops. Sometimes they take a couple of hours and other times, even days. I don’t even think about their names before I finish with them. As the puppet evolves and its costumes are decided, the character comes through. And I make them with all sorts of things; Christmas trinkets, table tennis balls, thermocol and so on,” she admits.

Bhanumathi is also a life member of the Madras National Society. So how does the naturalist and puppeteer coexist? “I have written two textbooks; Environmental Education for Class 8 and Value Education. Nature walks, camps, orientation sessions; I’ve done them all. I’m also an avid photographer. My shadow puppetry workshops have no leather in them. Instead we use thick cardboard or plastic sheets. Most of my puppetry workshops deal with conservation and wildlife issues. ”

Being a puppeteer involves multi-tasking and being a jack of many trades. “To make puppets and work with them you need to have a basic understanding of design, proportions, cutting, stitching, drawing, painting, needlework, script writing, music, carpentry, costume designing, voice modulation, knowledge of raw materials and so on. You also need to practice and throw your voice. My ideas are out-of-the-box since common parlance is a ‘puppet show’. My work only begins after the show. I give people the input to make a show and bring them back to it. People call me a puppet teacher and I’m content being just that. Here, it is just me and my puppet.”