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When dolls speak

A still from Gita’s documentary Kattabomalattam  

It’s evening and the air is suffused with expectation. Children gather in groups, stringing together native fryums. By night, you know their final destination — the edible garlands go on to decorate the puppets that feature in the string puppetry performance, hugely popular in Jalagandapuram, Rakkipatti and Kongupatti regions surrounding Salem district.

Backstage, men don anklets and dance to a beat handed down generations, their feet moving in rhythm with their hands. The women are performers too, in some troupes. In others, they help handle the dolls — heavy at 20-25 kg each — revered as gods by the families of puppeteers.

Scenes such as these people artist Gita’s documentary, Kattabomalattam, which has bagged the Jury Special Award at the Heritage Film Festival 2016.

Gita, known for her work rooted in the artistic traditions of the State and her exploration of the creations of masters such as Achuthan Kudallur, Vidyashankar Sthapathi, Perumal and Suriyamoorthy, was drawn to string puppetry when she coordinated a workshop for them at DakshinaChitra.

“To think that they were hardly 30 km from Salem, yet hidden from our collective consciousness!”

Though she’s made close to 20 films so far, this is the first time Gita’s taken part in a festival. “It feels good, as the film will now travel to many venues in the country and abroad,” says the artist.

Among the people featured in the documentary are Periasamy of Ramakrishna Bommallatam Company in Jalagandapuram, Govindaraja of Ramakrishna Bommallatam Company in Kongupatti and Chenna Krishnan of Jai Ramavilas Drama Company in Rakkipatti.

Chenna’s group is noted for having female members — his mother, aunt and sister Latha (a mridangam player since the age of six).

The documentary on this art form is among the few that Gita had done in a departure from her tradition. She’s also shot Kurumba tribal artists and the Gond artists of Madhya Pradesh.

This 53-minute film, shot over three years and completed in 2014, questions the future of the disappearing art form of string puppetry.

She was assisted by art critic and writer Vaishnavi Ramanathan and art historian K.T. Gandhirajan, who also helped with backstage camera.

“There was a time when the region had about 10 active groups; that’s dwindled now. They primarily perform at temples, where the art form is considered an offering to the deity. Each group has about 75 dolls, which are packed with great care and taken from village to village,” says Gita.

Gita also speaks to puppet maker Manickam, whose market is dwindling. “These dolls last nearly a 100 years. Plus, the number of troupes has come down. There’s no one to pass on his craft too, and he takes up regular work in temples,” she says.

The filmmaker says that it is endearing that despite the influx of technology and other forms of entertainment, string puppetry continues to survive. “In the villages, the group erects a tent, and the main artist-cum-owner doubles up as ticket vendor. And, there are so many children who stay up all night to listen to folk interpretations of noted epics or social issues,” she recalls.

There is another group near Tiruchi involved in this art form as well, but Gita decided to stick to the folk groups. “That is more classical; the music is Carnatic, and the dolls sport Bharatanatyam costumes. The audience for that is very different,” she says.

The nod given to the film at the HFF, says Gita, is validation of the groups’ ability to stick around tenaciously in this day and age.

And, she hopes they will survive. Like an artiste in the documentary says: “We have managed so far. And, we believe God will keep the art form afloat down generations.”

The Heritage Film Festival was instituted by Ahmedabad-based aadhar to preserve India’s finest cultural legacies through audiovisual media. The HFF encourages film submissions, organises film making projects, reviews film competitions and screens films to different audiences, especially youth. The Festival now aims to travel across the globe to promote India’s heritage. For details, visit http://www.aadhar-india.org/about-hff/

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 12:53:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/When-dolls-speak/article16440147.ece

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