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Pulling strings effectively

Puppetry has been extensively used by Ratnamala Nori as a means of social communication. This is reflected in the tremendous success the art has gained due to her efforts.

STORY TIME: Ratnamala with some of her puppets.

I HAVE pleasant memories of my childhood at Bombay. I studied in an excellent convent school run by Canadian nuns. My parents were true Gandhians and being the middle of six siblings, I could relate well with both elders and the younger ones. Amidst a mixture of convent discipline, Gandhian principles and good values, I had the best of everything. Bombay was a great place to live in those days. I have vivid impressions of Jawaharlal Nehru landing in a helicopter in the park in front of our apartment building on August 15 to deliver his speech at the Secretariat next door. I believe I subconsciously draw from these memories while working with my puppets, my `chacha Nehru Puppet' emerges on a cloud on Children's Day.

I had a wonderful opportunity to travel, see places and experience the cultures abroad - thanks to my father's job with the U.N. and the I.M.F. The beautiful island of Bali lay the foundation for my deep-rooted interest in the Fine Arts and crafts. Studying Fine Arts at MSU, Baroda under the Deanship of K.G. Subramanium was an unforgettable experience. Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt, Raghav Kaneria and many well-known artists were my teachers. They were inspiring and dedicated teachers and, indeed, I am truly grateful to them for all that they have taught me.

Adding on more qualifications later, according to my interest and necessity, helped me to progress better. A Diploma in Montessori training helped me to understand the working of the child's mind, a Masters in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology gave me more knowledge about our ancient culture and a P.G. Diploma in Mass Communication and Journalism helped me to communicate better with my puppets.

I never imagined myself to be a puppeteer. Just like any trained artist, I thought I too would paint and exhibit my works. Marriage took me to the U.K. and six years stay in London with two children - a boy and a girl - exposed me to the other unexplored arts - story-telling and audio-visual media of communication. I began to teach art and craft wherever my children went to school. First in London and then at Hyderabad where we came to settle down. (I still teach art at the Hyderabad Public School, Ramanthapur).

LESSONS LEARNT: Propagating adult education.

I found the state of art education depressing and decided to spend time on developing various art teaching techniques to help children express themselves creatively. It was on one of these ventures that, quite by chance, I became involved with the National Puppetry Festival organised in 1986 at the Bal Bhavan. I was completely fascinated by the world of puppets and the work of puppeteers like late Meher Contractor from Darpana Academy, Suresh Dutta of Calcutta Puppet Theatre and Dadi Pudumjee of Sahara Puppet Theatre left this impression on my mind! My first experiment with puppets was a small production with glove puppets made during my Montessori training period. `The radiant child' was based on the philosophy of Mme Montessori. I was surprised to see the easy success it had. My second venture was in the field of social communication - the puppet plays made for adult education for the Literacy House, AMS, were very effective in motivating the need for adult education. We noticed that the village folk in the rural areas of Domakonda and other places were quite attracted to the puppets which entertained and educated at well. They came forward to ask for adult education centres where there were none.

As puppeteers, we could only motivate. It was the Government's job to increase the centres. Our success stories resulted in the sanction of a puppetry cell, which is still functioning today. Subbaiah, the villain of our story on thrift, became my hero when he won an NCERT award as an educational toy puppet. This further enthused me to work confidently with puppets. Several programmes for the Doordarshan were made and one of our stories titled Maya Oka Japan Katha - won a Nandi Award.

Now we were an organisation - The Nori Art and Puppetry Centre was registered under the Societies Act in 1994. My husband and two children, Sridhar and Sarada, were full partners in our mission to reach out making a difference through puppetry. We had to involve many creative persons - in the form of script-writers, musicians, theatre persons, and many more, for puppetry involves all the arts, both performing as well as visual.

Over the years, (more than a decade) thanks to government organisations like NCSTC, DST and CAPART, we were able to develop a training module for grassroot level communication with puppets motivating several audiences in the remote rural areas, we have been able to train teachers, special children and normal children as well. But it has been a struggle reaching so far. The path has not been smooth - we have had hurdles and obstacles - in innumerable forms - we have proved ourselves in the field of social communication but for sustainability and replicable programmes with the underprivileged, we need ongoing programmes with the GOs and the NGOs. For stage performances, we need encouragement from cultural departments and sponsors. I am convinced that an artist has a role to play in society, and our puppets have tremendous responsibilities. I am reminded of what Padma from Nalgonda, a trainee who learned puppetry from us, once said - `Madam, telling these puppet dialogues is no problem for me, for these are the problems I am faced with everyday. You have given me a weapon in my hand and through this `puppet', I will tell my dialogues, for they come from my heart.'

Art is a weapon of immeasurable strength. And its victories cannot be overestimated. We are hopeful, for we have a long way to go and much to achieve.

(The writer is the Founder director of Nori Art and Puppet Centre, and also the Art teacher at the Hyderabad Public School, Ramanthapur for the last 16 years)


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