by DEEPALI NANDWANI
FOR the past two weeks Mumbai has been playing host to puppet artists from India and Europe, countries in which the puppetry tradition goes back several thousands years. 'Impressions', the Indo-European Puppetry Festival --- the first of its kind in India --- was a joint effort by Alliance Francais, Max Mueller Bhawan, Prithvi theatre and National Centre for Performing Arts.
From Germany came the Stuttgart-based puppetry group Figurentheater Wilde and Vogel with 'Exit: A Hamlet Fantasy'. Grotesque beige-and-red puppets representing Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet and Ophelia --- the immortal characters of Shakespeare's classic play --- act out their roles in English and German to the accompaniment of old and new music played live on stage. Unlike Indian puppets that are small colourful figurines, German puppets look more like mask.
From France came Theatre du Petet Miroir, with puppeteers Lon Labelle-Rogoux and Jean-Luc Penso presenting the old Arabian tale 'Alladin'. Interestingly, a high precision gears company, an aquarium manufacturer and a steel specialist have engineered the sets and puppets made of metal and steel.
The puppets are sculpted from beautiful Malaysian wood and dressed in luscious silk from China. They have unimaginable powers and can appear, disappear, fly and fight at will. Interestingly, again the music is a combination of percussion, synthesiser and computer-aided rhythms. The two puppeteers have learnt their art from Taiwan puppet master Li Jien Lu. No wonder their performance has a mix of shadow, string and glove puppets.
India is represented by the Kumara Tirupal company from Andhra Pradesh. It presented two pieces. The first, 'Lankadahanam' from Ramayan, is a dramatisation of the section where Lord Ram sends Hanuman in search of Sita who has been abducted by Ravan. The search, the capture of Hanuman by Ravan's soldiers and the burning of Lanka are presented with the help of shadow and light puppets. The second, 'Virataparvam' from Mahabharata, deals with the life of Pandavas in disguise while going through a exile after losing in a dice game to the Kauravas.
The second Indian inclusion in the festival has been Geetanjali Koland's 'Walking Naked', a dance-theatre show based on the life and poetry of Karnataka's 12th century saint-poet Mahadevi Akka. Three puppets --- the first made of ice, the second of cloth and the third of paper and metal --- act out the different aspects of the poet's life.
For perhaps the first time a whole range of puppets --- shadow, string, marionettes, glove, metal, and interestingly, even ice ---- are being used to stage stories which are as old as human civilisation.
Puppetry as an art form is going through a renaissance across the world. It is slowly moving from the realm of a child's world and is being viewed as an art form. Artists are working atreviving old, classic forms of puppetry. Puppeteers are staging serious, classical works like Shakespeare's plays or the old mythical stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Puppetry came to India from Greece and Egypt, the cradles of human civilisation. In these two ancient cultures, puppets were used to recount religious tales. But as time went on, puppet shows began to include tales about legendary kings and heroes.
There was a time when entire villages left everything to watch a puppet show. The artists, mostly from nomadic tribes that roamed the length and breadth of India --- would come with their bag, their puppets and their musical instruments. They would stay for over ten days in each village, and then move on.
But then, with time, came the satellite television. With even villagers taking to the idiot box, the art of puppetry has very few takers in the rural areas. Mercifully, urban India that is going through a phase of rediscovering its roots, is turning patron for the all but forgotten arts.
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