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Pulling the strings to resuscitate a dying art

G.Srinivasan
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stages of life:A puppet show under way atSri Besant Lodge at Thanjavur.Photo: B.Velankanni Raj
stages of life:A puppet show under way atSri Besant Lodge at Thanjavur.Photo: B.Velankanni Raj

As the puppets start dancing on the stage – thanks to the dexterity of artistes pulling the strings from behind – the crowd at Sri Besant Lodge in Thanjavur on Sunday breaks into peals of laughter. While the old were awe struck at the speed and deftness with which the puppets danced to the tune of artistes , the children in the crowd lustily cheered the show. Some tiny tots even joined the puppets in dancing.

Sri Gananathar Bommai Nataka Sabha from Mayiladuthurai presented the show Sivasakthi, a puppetry programme, as part of the music and dance festival organised by the Thanjavur Thyagabrahma Sabha. The show started with offering of puja to Lord Vinayaga. The Karakattam performance that followed suit brought alive the nuances of the tradition in flesh and blood. Poikkal Kuthirai was yet another attractive feature of the show and the story of Sivasakthi followed next.

Thyagaraja Sharma, an English Professor, who introduced the show, said that the art dated back to Indus Valley Civilisation. Excavations of clay dolls from the site were an indication of this long tradition. Lot of information about puppetry was seen in Sangam literature too. Started initially as a medium of entertainment, puppetry became the media for propagation ideas, dissemination of information, and educating masses .

There are historical evidences to show that the art was practiced in Greece during the time of Dionysius at an auditorium called "Acropolis". In the churches in Italy, the performance was called Marionette which refers to a puppet or little joined figure made to look like a person or animal and moved by strings or wires from above on a miniature stage.

In India the art was popular in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, and West Bengal. Unique feature of the art is that the puppets were operated through the strings attached to the knee, hip, wrist, shoulders, and ankle of the puppet that makes each and every part of its body move as that of a human being .

Kalaisudarmani Somasundaram, director, Sri Gananathar Bommai Nataka Sabha, said that they have been performing the art for the past three generations. Started in 1946 by Velu Nair of Kumbakonam, it was continued by P.K.Ramamurthy Nair. Then his son-in-law A.S.Manikkavasagam continued the tradition for 47 years. His son Somasundaram is now conducting the shows. Initially puppetry was performed during temple festivals .

Later it was used by Life Insurance Corporation of India, social security departments, tourism, and cooperative departments to spread the awareness of leprosy eradication, prevention of female foeticide, and family planning.

S.P.Anthonisamy, president, Thyagabrahma Sabha, said that puppetry was included in music festival to resuscitate the dying art. "It evoked a good response , more than what we expected," he said.

R.Kasturi Rangan, assistant general manager, State Bank of India, A.Vadivudevi, secretary, Thyagabrahma Sabha, and R.Nandakumar, treasurer, participated.

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