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Still STICKing to the ART

Leather puppeteers are driven to penury for lack of patronage, says T. SARAVANAN.

Photo: S. James

THE KING, the Queen and the whole rank and file dance to their tunes onstage. But alas, the reality behind the screen is much in contrast.

The hapless leather puppeteers desperately yearn for the mercy of Government to patronise their dying art.

The art form originated from Maharashtra-Andhra Pradesh border and it fascinated the people and the royals alike what with the brilliant colours used and the graceful movements of the puppets.

Subsequently, the art form shifted to South towards Thanjavur, where the Serfoji Kings of Thanjavur patronised the art and the puppeteers.

Leather puppeteer N. Durairaj Rao is able to trace his family roots in Thanjavur. He vaguely recalls the street in Thanjavur from where his grandfather took to the art decades ago.

"We are illiterates and all our lessons were learnt through word of mouth and passed on to future generations by the same means," he says.

This sexagenarian still remembers playing on the Kondal Kara Street and Vadakku Vaasal in Thanjavur where he picked up the nuances of this art.

Making of puppets

The leather puppets are made of goat skin. No process of tanning is involved while preparing the skin.

The skin is allowed to dry for a day or two. The dried skin is thin and also clear and translucent, devoid of any smell or colour. The skin is next cut into desired figures.

Generally, the artistes select the figures from the paintings found in temples. Colouring of the figures is considered very important.

Usually chemical dyes are used for the purpose. The artists use two or three basic colour combinations like red and black, white and blue or black and white.

Colours like green, violet, pink, yellow, orange are also used prominently as required. Though these colours appear garish, they are a hit with the rural populace and in fact work as a crowd puller.

The colours are mixed in water and spread on the skin with a piece of cloth or rag or brush rolled into a lump. The colours are applied on both sides of the figure. For particular characters, definite colours are used.

The picture depicting Rama or Krishna is generally coloured blue, Anjaneya is green and the female characters are done in orange or yellow.

However, the colour combinations are flexible.

Earlier, the entire figure used to be made of a single piece with immovable limbs.

Hence, during a performance, the figures always moved upwards or downwards or to the sideways.

Realistic portrayal

Over a period of time, the puppeteers adopted a more realistic portrayal. They made the neck and joints of the limbs of the puppets flexible by joining independent pieces together loosely.

This made the job easier for the puppeteer as he animated the figures to give an impression to the public that the figure was actually performing.

The puppeteer at a time handles three or four characters.

Such is his skill that he not only dexterously manipulates the figures simultaneously but also makes quaint matching sounds to the amazement of the viewers.

Interestingly, while all the action essentially takes place behind the screen, the audience ultimately sees a lively demonstration of the plot only through shadows of figures dancing and moving up and down.

Shadow effect

The shadow effect to the whole show is given by placing lamps behinds the screen which focus on the figures. While enacting their part, the puppeteers run the risk of projecting their own shadow on the screen.

To avoid this, they stand away from the screen and manipulate the figures by using long sticks. The outcome of this technical operation is most amusing and realistic too.

Earlier, the subject matter for leather puppet shows used to be borrowed from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. But of late, these shows are also used as a means for propagating the Government's various social messages and awareness campaign in villages.

"We are experts in narrating the Ramayana (seven sections), `Mayil RavananKathai', `Nalla Thangal Kathai', `Harichandra'. But now we are also trained in presenting mother-child welfare, family welfare, AIDS awareness, rainwater harvesting programmes. Still majority of our characters are drawn from epics.

"We have the capacity to perform continuously for three hours," narrates Durairaj Rao, who has many awards to credit including `Gramiya Kalai Thilagam', `Gramiya Kalai Semmal', `Gramiya Kalaiarasan' and `Muthamizh Kalaimani'.

"The leather puppeteers have also started including the story of India's freedom struggle in their performances. They have made figures of Gandhiji, Pt. Nehru and these stories have enhanced the credibility of their performances," shares N. Sulaiman, AssistantDirector, Regional Centre for Art and Culture.

Next generation

"Earlier, we led a nomadic life pitching our tents for a month in every village. But now we are left with nothing. Even with the pittance I earned, I sent my daughters to school but after that I was left with nothing to continue their studies. Now they help me in my shows," laments the puppeteer.

Majority of these puppeteer families have left the traditional art form in pursuit of greener pastures.

Now with only a handful of families practising this art, it in dire need of patronage.

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