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A puppet tale


Bombeyata, a highly stylised string puppet tradition, mirrors Yakshagana.

Photo: H. Vibhu

PUPPET THEATRE: Bombeyata performs regular Yakshagana plays.

The puppeteers of Kasaragod and their art seem to be in nowhere land. Disowned and neglected by both the Karnataka and Kerala governments they are left to fend for themselves.

An integral part of India's performance tradition, despite its decline in recent years, it still forms a very significant part of our theatrical activity. An important traditional media, puppets have been associated with folk and classical theatre, sharing stories, textual material, music, costume and other elements.

Visually stunning

Yakshagana, of Karnataka, with its elaborate and complex make-up, complete with jewellery and headgear, is visually stunning. The dance content is primarily stylised movements, entries and exits. Each of these movements specifies the characters represented. The most common movement patterns are circles, zig-zag movements, leaps and jumps and a particular type of pirouetting that actually heightens the Yakshagana performance. The actors on stage move to the percussion beats.

The highly developed string puppet tradition called the Bombeyata performs regular Yakshagana plays, known as `prasangas' (episodes) that are based on the two Indian epics and the Puranas. And there is only one troupe in Kasaragod, Sri Gopalakrishna Yakshagana Bombeyeta Sangha, that, for the past 24 years, has been staging puppet shows with all the ritualistic vigour of Yakshagana.

They have staged shows in various parts of the country and participated in international puppet festivals in Paris and Lahore.

This troupe presents various stories in the thenku thittu (Southern) style using string and rod puppets. The techniques they use are mind-boggling. Each of the puppets, approximately one foot or less, has eleven joints with six strings and three main sticks to which the strings are suspended. The puppeteer, with fine skill, synchronises the puppets, making it move according to the dialogues and dance in tune with the music.

"It is fundamental for the puppeteers to learn the rudiments of Yakshagana. He must be able to strictly adhere to the thala, laya and even sing in the upper octaves," says K. V. Ramesh, director of the troupe and an experienced Yakshagana performer.

Family legacy

Ramesh quit the stage and turned full-time to his puppets as part of his family legacy. "This was originally started by veteran performers, the late Kallkata Lakshminarayanayya and the late K. Venkatakrishnayya. I, along with a few others in the family, have continued the tradition. It is not smooth sailing at all.

We must have invested more than Rs. 3 lakhs on the show. Then we have yearly recurring expenses. In all these years we have not received a rupee as grant from the government. This is not our livelihood. We got some help from the Karnataka Government to repair the puppets before our trip to Pakistan. But we will see that the show goes on," says Ramesh, who runs a printing press.

For the show held at the Kalikota Palace, Thripunithura, under the aegis of the Manavaseva Kendram, the troupe staged `Narakasura Vadham' and `Garuda Garvabhangam.'

Here the dialogues, songs and music were recordings and not live as it used to be.

"Yes, usually two or three accompanists deliver the dialogues. The Bhagavathar or the person conducting the shown was a sensitive musician and an imaginative story teller who gave dramatic expression to the situations through the puppets. But finding people for every show became difficult.

"There was this performance we had in Coorg and at the last minute the musician expressed his inability to join us. Then we decided to go in for recorded dialogues and music," reveals Ramesh.

Even as the wooden puppets in all their rich finery sway in perfect harmony with the music, there are bound to be moments when one forgets that they are lifeless wooden puppets.

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