On Ayudha Puja night, the Ramalinga Vilasam at Ramanathapuram Palace was lit up and the ground was filled with eager spectators waiting for the puppet show to start. As the temporary stage came alive and the wooden puppets danced and wooed the audience with the tale of ‘Valli’s marriage.’ It was pure magic.
In the early 1900s, Sethupathi Raja, had invited a group of puppeteers from Kumbakonam to perform at the Dussehra festival at the palace. Since then this troupe, now called the Sri Murugan Sangeetha Bommalatta Sabha, has kept alive the tradition by performing every year at the palace on the ninth day of the festivities.
T. S. Murugan (52) who is the third generation in this family of puppeteers, recalls his grandfather telling him that during the freedom struggle it was this art form that was used by various leaders to awaken the spirit of freedom among the villagers. As an artist, he says it is saddening to see the craft slowly losing its charm as the government has failed to give the necessary impetus for this art. It is only during temple festivals and other occasions they are called to perform.
These wooden puppets that sometimes weigh even 6 to 10 kg have to be manipulated by using strings. This manipulation should be in perfect synchronisation with the narrative and the background score that is played on the harmonium. It is an art that needs to be practised and honed. Yes, his children are being trained and are now part of the troupe, says Murugan, who is the son of T.N. Sankaranathan a Kalaimamani awardee.
There are about 100 puppeteers in Tamil Nadu. Mr. Murugan says that for all of them this is their only livelihood. Though the government is using their expertise in creating awareness of various schemes like road safety rules, or propagating maternal healthcare, more can be done by using this art in the educational system, he points out. “For children when puppets tell a narrative, the moral of the story is imbibed easily by them,” he says.
At a time when children are glued to cell phones and TV, would puppetry bring about a change? Yes, it does says Divan K. Palanivelpandian of the Ramanathapuram Palace. “Even today it is this puppetry show that draws a huge crowd to the palace on Ayudha Puja day. Like our forefathers, we want to keep alive this traditional art and it is heartening to see that young children come to see this show,” says the Divan.