She lifts the hem of the garish curtain gingerly and steals a coy glance. Stepping on to the spotlight, decked in resplendent attire, she performs a vigorous dance sequence. Greeted with the sound of applause, she pulls out a napkin and pretends to wipe the sweat off her brow.
When you discover, the ‘she' is a three feet high puppet, you might join in the applause. Her stage is a green rectangular tent and her gestures are manipulated by strings. The marionette was part of the ensemble presented in the city recently by Sri Murugan Sangeetha Bommalatta Sabha from Kumbakonam, one of the few existing troupes in the state professing the traditional art of story-telling.
Established by octogenarian T.N.Sankaranathan who still tours with the troupe, it is his son T.S.Murugan who currently runs the show. “Bommalattam has been in vogue for centuries. It even finds a mention in the Thirukural. Practised as a family tradition, string puppetry has hardly a couple of practitioners today,” rues Sankaranathan.
“With cinema, television soaps and internet, there is a lot stacked up against the art. We use everyday jargon, though the stories we narrate are centuries old. We draw contemporary parallels and introduce ample doses of humour to keep the show engaging,” says T.S.Murugan, who believes that change is the order of the day to reckon with modern audiences.
Stage lighting is used effectively and the keyboard has replaced the harmonium providing a rich variety of sounds. “Though it is a folk art, narrating the story with folk music does not hold good at all avenues. While we use the traditional ‘themmanku' in villages, we introduce popular cine songs in cities and carnatic music while performing at sabhas.”
Fresh lease of life
Bommalatam is generally performed at temple festivals and village fairs. But to sustain the eight-member troupe, more avenues are required notes Murugan. Providing a fresh lease of life to the folk art are present day thematic weddings.
“In the last two years, we have received a number of requests to perform at weddings. People believe a bommalattam show is a refreshing change from the usual orchestra. This is a welcome trend.”
Yet, Mr.Murugan is sceptical about the future of the art. “There are not many takers for learning Bommalattam. There are people who learn the ropes and leave mid-way. As the art integrates music, drama and script writing, many people find it challenging.”
Though the troupe interweaves social messages in its narration, adapting to modern themes completely is not feasible as it calls for a new set of puppets. One large sized puppet costs Rs.15, 000, inclusive of wood, painting and costumes, shares the puppeteer.
Mr.Murugan and his troupe believe that government patronage and inducting the art as a co-curricular activity in schools would go a long way in keeping alive the art of articulating stories.