Puppet Masters Theatre

Puppet troupe Tal Betal aims to engage both children and adults

Tal Betal’s take on the pied piper tale.

Tal Betal’s take on the pied piper tale.   | Photo Credit: Tal Betal

Their plays deal with issues such as autonomy and truth, presented in a simple and entertaining way

“Alive and alive and alive, it’s me!” cries the runaway doughnut as he escapes from being eaten once again. The puppet’s joy is met with cheers from an audience quite happy to trade in a weekend evening to catch one of Tal Betal’s only English performances. And it is here, says Subhasis Sen, founder of the Kolkata-based puppet troupe, that the puppet truly comes alive — in the audience’s applause and laughter. “You send a stimulus to the audience and get their feedback — it may be silence, a hum, claps. They fill in the gaps and the puppet comes to life.”

Tal Betal was in Chennai for a two-week puppetry festival, and showcased two English performances, A Runaway Doughnut and Bhabam the Barber. The first, a take on the popular Gingerbread Man tale, revolves around a doughnut who flees after learning that everyone wants to eat him, until he is finally rescued by a fairy. The second is based on a Bengali folktale that follows Bhabam the barber who finds out that the king has horns while cutting his hair, and is ordered to keep it a secret. Both performances were preceded by workshops for children that unravelled the behind-the-scenes secrets of puppeteering.

The group’s regular repertoire includes shadow puppetry and bunraku, but in Chennai, they showcased glove puppets, each one as colourful and captivating as the stories.

On and off rhythm

When I reached the set some hours before a performance, the group was still setting up. Even in the dark, you could easily identify Sen, 62, sitting shadowed in the back, calling out cues and directions. Sen started Tal Betal (meaning ‘on and off rhythm’) in 1973, with his parents and sister. Today, he’s the only original member left, but many new artists have signed up.

Sen had had his epiphany in boarding school, where he first encountered puppets. His eyes fill with wonder as he recalls that moment. “I was taken aback, shocked. It haunted me and filled me with happiness. No, not happiness but ecstasy. Like when you see god, you’re dumbfounded.” The magic endured. Many years later, inspired by his father, he would leave a stable banking job to take up puppetry full time.

If puppets are his passion, it’s children who are his inspiration. “When a child cries for me, wishes that I stay back for him, that is highly rewarding. Not applause, not money, nothing will stay. The only things that stay are the child’s laughter, involvement, attachment.”

Sen sees himself as educator more than entertainer. He prides himself on being able to teach children who may be seen as ‘below-average’ students in the traditional academic sense. Leaning over conspiratorially, he tells me in a stage whisper, “I was dismissed as an average student. But now I’ve realised that I was not. I was just not interested in certain subjects. The real task of a teacher is to create interest in the subject.” And for Sen, puppets have proven to be the most effective means of creating this interest. He grins as he recounts how teachers have come up to him astonished, asking how he manages to get all the backbenchers to be so proactive during his sessions.

The runaway doughnut.

The runaway doughnut.   | Photo Credit: Tal Betal

Deeper thoughts

Tal Betal’s performances, however, aren’t necessarily just for children. A quick glance around the theatre reveals seats filled with as many adults and adolescents. This, says Sen, is quite common. “In fact,” he chuckles, as he strokes his chin, “Adults actually like the performances more. I think they find depth in the stories.”

Tal Betal achieves such depth by centring its stories around what Sen calls “eternal issues”. The story and characters may change depending on the setting, but the issues remain constant. “For instance,” says Sen, “During the elections, we saw our leaders speaking in such filthy ways. Why? Because as human beings, they are greedy for power. Power was there in the Stone Age, and will be there when the earth is destroyed. Only the manifestation has differed.” Thus, older audiences can connect tales that seem innocent and innocuous to the large and political. A Runaway Doughnut and Bhabam the Barber deal with issues of autonomy and truth, but in simple and entertaining ways, with props and music softening the serious.

When you have ‘eternal issues’ at the crux of a performance, it encourages the audience to pay close attention to the shows. And, says Sen, such attention is what is needed for theatre to succeed. Light glints off his gold-rimmed glasses as he rearranges himself in his chair before stating with an air of finality, “An artist wants his work not to be appreciated but to be seen attentively. Let them criticise us thoroughly and say bad words. I accept it, so long as you have been attentive.”

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 4:24:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/puppet-troupe-tal-betal-aims-to-engage-both-children-and-adults/article28096754.ece

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