Dancing dolls

K.V. Govindarajan and his team of katta bommalattam artistes from Salem add more life to the Mylapore Festival

The queen, princess, the court’s jester... one by one they emerge from their resting places. Inside the duffel bags in which they’ve journeyed long and far, they are mere lifeless dolls. But when K.V. Govindarajan and his team of katta bommalattam artistes touch them, the dolls jingle to life. Held by the strings that control their movements, the dolls are almost fluid as they catch the evening light. They are being prepped for their performance on the stage set up in front of the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore as part of the Mylapore Festival.

The cloth screen in front of which they will come alive has been spread across the stage and the artistes will soon take position behind them to control their respective dolls. Govindarajan and his team that forms the ‘Salem Sri Ramakrishna Katta Bommalattam’ troupe have come all the way from the village of Kongupatti to perform in the city.

“Today, we will tell the story of the Aravalli sisters from the Mahabharata,” explains Govindarajan.

His troupe is 52 years old. “My grandfather, Ayil Naidu, formed it, which was then taken over by my father Venkatesan Naidu. I, in turn, learnt the art from him,” he explains. Govindarajan says that some 25 years ago, there were around 15 such puppetry troupes in and around Salem. “Now there are only three left, of which only we are busy for most part of the year,” he adds.

Ask him to take us through the art form and he says, “You must watch the show to understand it,” and adds, “Amidst live music that consists of mridangam, muga veenai, harmonium, among other instruments, the dolls tell stories from our epics.” They speak in the voice of the artiste who controls them. He is everything — he makes it dance, sing, and talk; he becomes the doll he controls and the doll becomes him. Govindarajan lends his voice to the female lead, while his senior colleague U.V. Govindarajan speaks for female and male characters.

The troupe of 13 consists of musicians and voice artistes. “I’ve been with this troupe from the time I was 13,” says U.V. Govindarajan. “I’ve travelled to several places in India. Assam, Meghalaya... I enjoy performing in North Arcot the most. That’s where I feel we are well-appreciated. People treat us with respect and love.”

Sixty-two years old, U.V. Govindarajan rubs his grey beard as he reminisces. “We camp at a village for up to 30 days or so. Our performances start at 9 p.m. and can go on till 3 a.m. or even 8 a.m. if the audience is responsive. There are times when some villagers do not have the heart to see us leave. Why don’t you stay on for four more days, they would ask. They would feed us well and make us feel good,” he says.

They are booked for six months, and the rest of the year, the puppeteers turn farm-hands for sustenance. “I wait for the Tamil month of thai,” says U.V. Govindarajan. “That’s when we start our tours for the year. My heart is always here even if I’m working in the fields.”

T. Periyasamy, P. Perumal, and N. Raja, the other members of the troupe, get busy on stage as U.V. Govindarajan joins them. He seems tired in his crumpled dhoti, but smiles to himself as he takes out his dolls. He’s a different person altogether in the company of the katta bommais.

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 3:04:22 AM |

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