Puppets come to life in these masterly hands

Anurupa Roy’s puppets are as alive as the humans who hold their strings

Updated - December 30, 2017 06:35 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2017 05:00 pm IST

 Above, ahead: A fresh look at puppetry

Above, ahead: A fresh look at puppetry

Gut-wrenching isn’t a word you would associate with a puppet show. But then you can’t call Anurupa Roy’s award-winning production, Mahabharata , a puppet show either. It is pure, full-blooded theatre: here marionettes are as alive and full of emotions as the humans who hold their strings.

It is hard to tell where the marionettes end and where the human form begins in the play. They are behind, above, ahead and along the puppeteers who work them. It is the human hand that pulls the arrow but the plastic arm that shoots it into enemy heart is as violent. If the word, puppets, only conjures up clichéd visions of wooden figurettes in colourful skirts and turbans for you, Mahabharata is an education in how far the art has actually come.

The plastic, the performative

In Anurupa’s hands — and that of her versatile troupe, Katkatha — puppetry takes on an altogether new form and meaning. This, she says, is because the group has brought in multiple arts into puppetry: there is dance, music, kinetics and martial arts, taking it beyond traditional parameters.

“Puppetry is an art that combines the plastic and the performative even in its most basic form. The company came from a storytelling background but we were joined by dancers like chau expert Avinash Kumar who choreographed Mahabharata — so we added more folk martial forms. Then we were joined by a trained sculptor Mohammed Shameem, who could create big puppets like the horse’s head used in Mahabharata . All this brought a whole new sensibility to the art,” she says, explaining Katkatha’s distinct appeal.

A few thousand verses

Anurupa started with a diploma from the University of Stockholm and, she confesses, with no deep awareness of India’s rich puppetry traditions. It was after she returned and worked with the first Putul Yatra, the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s annual puppet festival, that she began to take a fresh look at the rich and varied practices in India.

“Every performer from this tradition needs to know a few thousand verses from the epics. And there is a couple that plays the roles of vidushakas on stage, Sillakayatta and his wife Bangarakha, asking questions about the motives of gods and goddesses with great wisdom. There is a pre-Hindu tradition here, very vocal and very political,” she says.

Mahabharata travelled to the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes at Charleville-Mézières, France, something of a mecca for the puppet arts, in September 2017.

Interestingly, “most of the audiences who landed up at packed venues had watched Peter Brook’s seminal play Mahabharata staged in the 1980s,” according to Anurupa.

There aren’t many women artistes in the world of puppetry. In traditional performing communities of the South there are lots, especially in shadow puppetry, but not so in other parts of India, says Anurupa. “The urban scene is a mixed bag, but that is changing,” she adds.

The author writes on, and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.

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