MEET Shanthakumar, who uses ventriloquism and humour to spread social messages. S. Sivakumar
S hanthakumar has three interesting companions, whenever he takes the stage -- puppets named Johnny, Jack, and Rani, who always worries about her looks. These puppets are the Chennai-based ventriloquist's creations and have become a means to convey his quick retorts, well-timed repartees and reflections on life.
How did Shanthakumar get interested in the art? He replies, “My interest was in presenting jokes with punch lines at various humour clubs that I have been visiting since the 1980s. I equipped myself accordingly and showcased my brand of humour at these clubs. This, perhaps, is what led me to ventriloquism.”
He continues, “The great Prof. M.M. Roy, one of the oldest professional ventriloquists in India, was my teacher. I asked him if he could teach me and sure enough, classes began on a fortnightly basis. Roy had performed in the film ‘Muradan Muthu' on the insistence of ‘Sivaji' Ganesan, and M.R. Radha was all praise for Roy after watching a show of his. Roy had assisted many in Hindi and Telugu movies.”
Shanthakumar's first lesson was to learn to hum like a bee. “If you can get this metallic sound right, then 20 per cent of the lessons would have been learnt, my guru would tell me.” He observes that since he lends his voice to the character he holds in his hand, his voice has to emanate from the abdomen and not the vocal chords. One is reminded of the immortal words of Tyagaraja, ‘Nabhi Hruth Khanta Rasana'.
The next vital trait for a performer is the absence of lip movement when the dolls set the ball rolling with their questions (or answers). “This means professionalism and a disguised effortlessness in your presentation. It's easier said than done. There were times in the initial stages when I was totally frustrated.” But he never gave up and more live shows (100) helped him get closer to his goal – achieving perfection.
Unlike mimicry, there is no need to bring out different kinds of sounds from the bottom of your throat. The mimicry artist imitates - producing sounds of animals, instruments, and even voices of others. In a word, he impersonates. Ventriloquism demands only the production of two or three voices. One can raise one's voice to a higher octave to make it squeaky to sound like a girl or bring down the sruti for the bass effect, thus imparting a lofty and high-brow seriousness to it, he clarifies.
Shanthakumar's shows have been telecast on various channels, including DD Podhigai. He has no less than 2,500 shows to his credit. The shows he enjoys watching are those by Cyrus Broacha, Shekhar Suman and Jaspal Bhatti. Charuhasan, Pandiarajan, Pandu, Babloo and Thenkachi Swaminathan have all been amazed at his level of sophistication and technique.
Shanthakumar still values the comments of a young boy who came up to him and said, “Your shows have none of those objectionable insertions.” A discipline he attributes to the culture that prevailed at the humour clubs.
What is the origin of this art? Who are the international performers he admires? “Unlike puppetry that can possibly be traced to Indian origin, ventriloquism has only travelled to India. Today, one remembers Edgar Bergen for his performances on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s, Ronn Lucas who employed a smoke-emitting dragon, Scorch, in his shows and Terry Fator who could sing, mimic and do ventriloquism - all with equal expertise and efficiency (he won $1 million on the show, ‘Season 2 America Has Got Talent'). Paul Winchell was a voice-actor for animated cartoons and Jeff Dunham studied Edgar Bergen a great deal before launching himself as a ventriloquist. At home, we have a highly-ranked performer, Ramdas Padhye, who also honed his skills under Prof. Roy.”
Shanthakumar is a retired banker and a law graduate. That he is a much sought-after magician is revealed as he attends a phone call. “I do magic in a small way and my flair for writing has helped me produce a few 32-page-books on various subjects.” He also employs a white board which begins with a step-by-step drawing of someone from the audience.
Unwittingly, this inanimate drawing on the board starts talking, expressing its wishes, ambitions, wise-cracks, vision, political thoughts and what have you! The audience is caught unawares but loves it.
If it is sleight of hand for a magician, it is sleight of voice for the ventriloquist. The guiding principle – ‘It is not to do but to be'. Shanthakumar adds, “I always try to finish with a song.”
This art has made him gain the acquiescence of one's mind in a short while as the “hidden voice” of the ventriloquist tumbles into your ears. The motivating factor is the service he renders to those assembled.
As they laugh heartily, Shanthakumar makes their worries fly away, albeit temporarily.