Redefining puppetry

Chennai:18/05/2011: For Friday Review: Interview with R. Bhanumathi, Puppet Artist. Photo: R_Shivaji Rao   | Photo Credit: R_Shivaji Rao

With a firm faith that puppets make a perfect channel of communication, especially to children, R. Bhanumati has dedicated her life to the promotion of the art, exploring all possibilities. She traces her association with puppetry in an interview. Excerpts:

When and how did you get into puppetry?

In the early 1980s, I shifted to Chennai from Delhi and was looking for a job. My friend's cousin, who was running a play school in Baroda, asked me to make a set of puppets for her school. I was acquainted with readymade puppets but had no clue about how to make them. However, my hobby of needle work and soft toy making came in handy.

How have you balanced puppetry and your profession all these years?

I joined the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-I), Tamil Nadu State office, in the mid-1980s as an education officer to promote wildlife awareness. As part of my work, I started using puppets to create awareness on wildlife and conservation through demo sessions and workshops for teachers, students and voluntary groups. I left the organisation in 2001 to do research.

What made you take up research in puppetry?

During my tenure in WWF-I, someone suggested that I should study the vanishing puppeteers and document the findings for a Ph.D. The idea sounded exciting. But I did not know where and how to begin. I took the first step by applying to universities for registration, the process took seven years.

I got the registration in 1999, when Gandhigram Rural University accepted my topic and I submitted my Ph.D in 2004.

During the research, which aspects did you find fascinating?

The research period of nearly five years was interesting as I tried to locate the artists, get glimpses of their lifestyle and performances, across the four southern States. The most memorable part was watching the puppeteers in Kerala performing in front of the Bhagavathi temples, also called ‘Kavus,' (sacred groves).

Post-research what has been your contribution?

I started a small charitable trust, Pavai, a centre for puppetry, to promote the art. I look at it in a holistic way and not just as a mere form of entertainment, whether it is the traditional or contemporary. The latter gives me unlimited scope in experimenting with materials such as paper, paper pulp, card board, cloth, jute, clay, foam and waste materials. As an environmentalist/nature educationist I do not use animal skin (leather). I replace it with cardboard, hard board, paper and used X-ray sheets. I have been conducting workshops for nearly three decades.

Have you been involved in any innovative projects?

I set up a multi-puppet theatre at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. This is the first of its kind in a Nature care centre in India. Recently on an invitation from an environmental agency, Abu Dhabi, the Government of UAE, I conducted workshops for teachers on ‘biodiversity, conservation, education' as part of the sustainable schools initiative project.

What are your personal triumphs?

As a student during school and college days, I never faced a big audience. After getting into the art of puppetry my inhibition slowly vanished and now I have started teaching others how to overcome shyness and face an audience. My talk shows on various concepts using different puppets are popular. The audience can not only touch the puppets after the show and get involved in the performances, but also get motivated to make puppets. I am proud that my puppets have made me what I am today! I have the confidence now to face challenges.

How is your work different from other puppet artists?

Puppetry as an application tool is not popular among performing groups. Traditional or professional puppet performers can only use the art form in performances because they have their limitations as educationists. This is one of the reasons why some traditional puppeteers do not get the respect they deserve. While they excel in performance, they are unable to take it to a higher level as an application tool. As an environmental educationist and a communicator I am able to use puppets for any concept dissemination. But I am not recognised by professional performers as they cannot relate to my method. This mind set has to change for the development of puppetry.

What type of concepts/issues have you addressed?

I have conducted sessions and workshops to address education and create awareness on various subjects, such as communication, skill development, stress release, therapy for shy children, health and hygiene, nature conservation and HIV/AIDS among other issues.

What is your vision of contemporary puppetry?

I want more people to come forward and take up this art form as it has tremendous potential in many areas of art and craft.

If I get sponsorship from corporate bodies, I can take this art form to the villages as a ‘Show on Wheels,' concept to create an awareness on environment and healthy living.

Pavai – Centre for Puppetry

Among the main activities:

Education and awareness

Application and promotion

Research and documentation

Conducting workshops

Curriculum-based training for teachers

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