Odisha’s lone woman filmmaker Lipika Singh Darai is in the news again. The four-time National Award winner’s latest film Backstage, on Odisha’s fading forms of puppetry, has been chosen for four major international film festivals in Italy, the U.S., Taiwan and India.
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The 85-minute documentary, produced by the Films Division, premiered last August at the 39th Asolo Art Film Festival in Italy. It portrays the life and struggles of the puppeteers of Odisha, the only State where all four forms of puppetry — glove, string, rod, and shadow — are practised.
Backstage, according to Lipika, is not just the story of the puppeteers, it echoes the emotions of folk artistes from around the country who are fighting to save their craft. The filmmaker spent nine years researching and documenting the life of the puppeteers. “It is not easy to capture an art in its entirety on camera unless you get to know every aspect of the tradition and culture it is part of,” she says.
Her first film, as a student at the Film & Television Institute of India, fetched her the National Award in 2010 for Sound Recording. After graduating from FTII, when she began working with the legendary Mani Kaul, she wanted to return to her homeland and her tribal roots. Lipika recorded the fast-fading songs of the Ho community, to which she belongs. And thus began her cinematic exploration of Odisha’s cultural canvas.
“My research into Odisha’s puppetry began in 2013. The film has important footage of my research. Over a period of time, I built a rapport with the puppeteers and interacted with them closely. In the earlier part of the film, the conversations sound like interviews; in the latter half, they sound like warm, friendly chats.”
The title, Backstage, is meant to show how a puppeteer lives a life in the shadows. “As I slowly built the narrative, the name seemed more justified than ever,” says Lipika. The director recollects her first meeting with the 80-year-old rod puppeteer, Maguni Charan Kuanr, in Keonjhar. “His dedication and passion left a deep impact on me. He wanted desperately to save the art form from fading into extinction.” And that aroused her desire to film the art and its traditions.
Lipika travelled to Angul to explore shadow puppetry, then to Ganjam, known for string puppetry, and finally to Kendrapara district for glove puppetry. “I met Rabi Das, a shadow puppeteer, whom I have featured in the film. His troupe had stopped performing several years ago, since he could not cope with the challenges. He sold his entire collection for just ₹500, bringing an end to a tradition.”
During her travels across Odisha, Lipika met Gouranga Charan Das and Sabitri Das in a village in Angul district. “Committed to preserving the art form, Gouranga learnt shadow puppetry; the couple even shifted base to a village to be in close touch with the puppeteers. Investing their entire savings into the art, the couple is building a unique puppetry museum, where research, documentation and training in all the four puppetry forms will be available.
“The film shows how art thrives in a community through individual artistic journeys,” says Lipika.
The Bhubaneshwar-based journalist focuses on art and culture.