Puppet show Theatre

Human marionettes tell an epic story


With simple props and spectacular masks, Bhopal’s Little Ballet Theatre troupe presented the Ramayana

The story is as old as the hills. The form is equally ancient. With fantastic masks and lightning costume changes, eighteen actors turned themselves into human puppets to retell the Ramayana. For nearly two hours each performer played multiple roles — human, divine, demon and animal — maintaining the illusion of life-sized, string-pulled marionettes. The style however, is flamboyant, original, modern, making the play a hit in 56 nations across the world.

Thanks to the two weeks’ Theatre Olympics organised at the Tamil Isai Sangam by the National School of Drama, a few lucky Chennai-ites got to see this magnificent version of the Ramayana, by Ranga Sri, Bhopal’s Little Ballet Theatre. What a pity that lack of publicity should have kept the hall sparse!

Human marionettes tell an epic story
The show’s apparent simplicity came from herculean effort, martinet training and relentless stamina. And mastery of technique — the jerkier the movement, the more credible seemed the enactment!

The minimalist backdrop suggested the frame of a Rajasthani painting — with festoons, pillars, a curtained doorway, and a half screen at stage right which could be moved back and forth to change locations. A platform behind this screen became box theatre for plays-within-the-play.

Human marionettes tell an epic story
And what a nifty idea to turn a grand epic into rollicking folklore — a puppet show at a boisterous village fair! The marketplace became the stage where the three sutradhars propitiated the gods, and introduced characters by assembling a spectacular array of paintings. Raja Dashrath, Guru Vasisht, Bhakt Hanuman, and the Rama-Lakshmana-Sita trio of course, while Ravana glared at the world with his green face, in the pacha vesham of Kathakali, presumably to indicate his southern roots. Every other character represented the Rajasthani kathputli, contrasting with the live sutradhars in folksy Gujarati attire.

The play strung key episodes, beginning with Rama’s joyous wedding procession into Ayodhya, followed by laments as he is exiled to the forest. He crosses the Ganga with brother and wife, under lyrical lights, the ferryman ‘plying’ the oar on a ‘boat’ of hand-held, waist-level cloth. Painted trees placed by the sutradhars made their romantic Panchavati woodland. Fun floated in with multi-coloured ‘birds’ calling shrill notes, broken by the entry of tragedy with Surpanakha.

Visual epigrams

Scenes changed like dissolves in films, but with clarity and mood intact. There were visual epigrams like Surpanakha’s bleeding face held above the curtain, while Ravan abducted a small doll instead of the humanoid puppet, a visual proof of the abductor’s might and the victim’s helplessness. Jatayu’s hugeness was established by the sutradhars shrinking to the floor as the gigantic bird rose on a platform.


Jatayu   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Contrasts took the story forward as sorrow-stricken Sita became courage incarnate when she berated the lustful Ravan. In the final war scene, Rama’s equanimity was a foil to Ravan’s stamps and thumps. Thankfully, there is no going through fire for Sita — the victorious prince embraces her lovingly and returns to Ayodhya (the village market square) with his retinue of monkeys and befriended asuras. Rama and Sita are garlanded by the sutradhars, as actors remove masks to become worshipful villagers. The spectators join in as they burst into ‘Raghupati raghav rajaram,’ a reminder that this production was choreographed in 1953, when India was still celebrating its emergence as a liberal, secular, ‘Gandhian’ democracy.

The show seemed so contemporary that it was difficult to believe that it was created in 1953 by Shanti Bardhan, one of this country’s most innovative choreographers, whose epic works include ‘India Immortal’ and the dance pageant of Nehru’s Discovery of India. After his untimely death, wife Gul Bardhan kept his Ramayana alive, not only the movements, but also the original costumes, backdrop and music. Once played by 15 live musicians, this score is now a recorded version. Its blurred patches, poor tonal quality (and overloud volume) could not hide its originality and adventurous imagination.

While there were songs from many sources including Tulsidas, the instrumental score amazed by its wide ranging choice of sound, melody and rhythm. Deep bass for Jatayu, cacophonus thumps for Ravana, lilting flute for Panchavati... And how adroitly dissonant crashings were splashed into the lilting waves as we moved from Panchavati to Lanka. And how utterly charming that modulated whistles and squeaks should replace words in the dialogue!

The specially crafted language of body and gesture had to be seen to be believed. The masks were a dream. All square but with staggering variety. Animated by the choreographer’s vision, actors’ skill and lighting design, the masks acquired a primeval power, a life of their own, seeming more expressive than human faces can ever be. The masked human marionettes made the viewer plunge into the navarasas by turn — grieving Dasaratha, furious Lakshmana, wily Mareecha, arrogant demons, valorous Jatayu, devoted Hanuman.

Ranga Sri’s Ramayana serves as a reminder that stylisation and minimalism can be the most powerful tools of modern theatre, and how cultural ideals — delinked from fake, aggressive religiosity — can create a timeless and inspiring work of art.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 6:57:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/human-marionettes-tell-an-epic-story/article22892465.ece

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