A story for all times

The world on a string: Jean Luc Penso (right) with his teammate— Photo: Murali Kumar K.

The world on a string: Jean Luc Penso (right) with his teammate— Photo: Murali Kumar K.  

IT HAD the perfect masala mix - a cunning hero with a bag of tricks, a king, music you could dance to, funny lines, funny accents, a `duh' uncle, greed, acrobatics, fisticuffs and fights, the paapi pet ka sawaal, a duper and the duped, the desire for justice. And of course, infidelity.

To hell with all those movies we never got to see the last few months. This Bollywoodish sounding potboiler was actually a spirited French shadow puppet show based on the most popular of French children's stories - The Fox Story - that had a whole lot of people in splits.

The kids romped at Alliance Francaise de Bangalore, and squealed in delight, watching the colourful puppets brought by The Theatre of the Small Mirror (translated from the French). The leather puppets danced to jolly French songs, against a colourful backdrop of SFX. And it made children of the elders too, who loved it as much and laughed with the kids.

Despite being peppered with French dialogues and songs, The Fox Story simply proved the universal appeal of all good stories. And reinvigorated faith in many, that good and enjoyable story-telling, the dying art that came so naturally to our grandparents, is still around and kicking.

Based on a 11th century French folktale popular in France even today and taught in schools, it's the story of the nattily clad Renart, the cunning fox and his tricks and his scheming wit to get at food. "The story is like big epics such as Ulysses, the Ramayana or Mahabharata, where you can find sense in any kind of society or time," says Jean Luc Penso, who founded the Theatre du Petit Miroir. He has, in fact, worked with Cambodian artists to do a human shadow play adaptation of the Ramayana. He's also observed puppet and shadow performers in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan.

What sets this story apart is that unlike most children's stories, it doesn't preach or moralise. The 21st century fox is allowed to stay cunning and has a happy ending to boot. "The moral of the story is that it's a completely immoral story about a shrewd fox. There is an ambivalence of character. The fox is mean and funny and definitely not honest and moral," says Penso, and adds with a twinkle and a grin: "Maybe we French are like that!"

France does not have a shadow puppet tradition, but the most popular French puppet tradition, the Marionette, now exists in an adapted and abstract form, says Penso.

Penso fell in love with Chinese puppets 35 years ago, when he saw a 10-minute documentary film on the art made by his guru and noted film-maker Jaques Pimpaneu. Penso, who was already studying Chinese, was egged on by Jaques to further research this puppet tradition.

So when he was barely 19, off he went to Taipei to study with Master Li Tien Lu. Penso has fond and vivid memories of his Master who almost adopted him like a son, much in the Asian tradition of the guru-shishya.

"When I first met him, he didn't talk to me, he just put a puppet into my hand. Like a good Frenchman, I offered him fees in a sealed envelope. But a few days later, he returned it unopened. His children had told him not to take money and treat me like his own child," says Penso with great respect.

But it was not a very warm reception he got from the rest of the Chinese community, that had reservations about a foreigner being taught their ancient and sacred art performed in front of the Gods. It was his Master who encouraged him later to adapt the art to French works, telling him he was not Chinese.

Forming his own theatre group in 1978, he has since performed in over 65 countries in languages ranging from English, Malay, Samoan, Indonesian, Chinese and French. They perform regularly to audiences in Paris at their own theatre. "We do a lot of mythology — Greek, Chinese and stories from the Pacific-Ocean. And each time we play, we try and incorporate the local language," says Peson.

So on Saturday in namma Bengalooru, they regaled audiences when Renart the cunning fox and the other colourful characters started speaking suddenly in Kannada: Suswagata, Ayyo, tumba chali and the most popular one — "Naanu sedu teerastene, I will revenge." Penso, along with teammates Eric Minnaert and Fabrice Moussy went the whole hog, changing accents, chomping noisily and snoring wildly and playing the characters to the hilt.

"Traditional puppetry may be dying out, but it will rebirth (sic) in another style. When I started off, I was pessimistic. But now I feel we are stronger than Hollywood."

Way to go. Encore!


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