Twenty plays and 300 puppet characters engraved on pieces of wood, which are brought to life on stages in front of live audiences over past 70 years – a no mean feat.
But, it requires to be passionate, dedicated, hardworking and willing to fail over and over again, just like 85-year-old Maguni Charan Kuanr of Odisha’s Keonjhar district, to help a dying art survive on the onslaught of modernity. When Mr. Kuanr’s name figured in this year’s list of Padma Shri awardees, it did not surprise those who know him, his perseverance and body of works.
Sitting at his home in district headquarter town of Keonjhar, the artist said he was happy that his art form got recognition on national stage in shape of Padma Shri award for him and till the death he would make all efforts to keep the rod puppetry alive.
Though India tasted freedom from British rule, around early 1950s the caste hegemony had not subsided. The rod puppetry being practiced by Mr. Kuanr was an art-form that was usually performed by fishing community in Keonjhar district. Mr. Kuanr instantly fell in love with the puppetry.
It was not easy for the artist, who belonged to Khyatriya, a higher caste, to get into puppetry which was considered job of Dalits. The resistance from the caste and family failed to come in way of Mr. Kuanr’s love for the art.
Puppetry is one of most ancient forms of visual art. There are four types of puppetry such as string, glove, shadow and rod practiced in the country. According to Shyamhari Chakra, an art columnist, Odisha is the only state to have all these four styles and rod-puppetry locally known as Kathi-Kandhei Nacha is found only in Keonjhar.
Mr. Chakra said puppets fixed on a wooden rod are generally the tallest and heaviest in rod puppetry. A puppeteer does the movement of puppets sitting below the platform unlike string puppets operated from top. But, Mr. Kuanr mastered the art with his versatility. He took the art form to such a professional height that was unheard of during that era.
The artist came up with his troupe and named it Shri Viswakarma Kalakunja. His shows based generally on Ramayana and Mahabharata were in so much high demand that people were eagerly awaiting for his troupe’s arrival. Truckloads of articles, puppet boxes and artists were moving in different parts of Odisha as well as Bihar, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. As time elapsed, so did his life of his art form.
Recipient of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja Samman, highest honour for performing arts in India and State respectively, Mr. Kuanr wanted the government to facilitate more shows for rod puppetry and help make younger generation aware about such art form practiced earlier by earlier generations.