When Your Art And Soul Is In Bringing Puppets To Life
Bengaluru-based puppet theatre Dhaatu Puppets marks the twenty-seventh year of its doll exhibition.
Dhaatu has a large collection of dolls and India’s largest collection of puppets ranging in size from your thumb all the way up to something larger than a fully grown human.
In the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and in some parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, you’ll find an interesting and unique tradition – one that, if you went by modern horror films, would creep you out.
But no, this is not that kind. This is the tradition of doll keeping called Golu or Bombe Habba.
In this practice, dolls are arranged in steps, each representing a fascinating snippet of Indian mythology from such mighty epics as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Srimad Bhagavata and others.
I recently went in search of these doll wonders. But my search didn’t last long. I knew that if I had to witness, perhaps, one of the more aesthetic displays of this tradition, I simply had to visit Dhaatu Puppets.
Bengaluru-based puppet theatre called Dhaatu Puppets marks the twenty-seventh year of its doll exhibition. Dhaatu has a large collection of dolls and India’s largest collection of puppets ranging in size from your thumb all the way up to something larger than a fully grown human.
I spoke to the lady at the helm, Anupama Hoskere, who is the artistic director at Dhaatu Puppets. She is a wonderful storyteller and I learnt more than you can imagine about puppets, the history and evolution of the art of puppetry, the arts and crafts involved in puppet making.
Hoskere has a curious background. She is an engineer with a Master’s degree in computer networking from the California State University. She was living in Los Angeles at one point and had nearly everything she could ask for - a wonderful family, beautiful children, and a satisfying job.
But somehow, she felt that wasn’t enough. She revisited the definition of her success and asked herself: what does success really mean to me?
Hoskere had deep interest in studying Indian epics. She was so grounded in ancient Indian philosophy that she believed Harishchandra’s truth had to be followed, Krishna’s Dharma was to be maintained, and Ramarajya was possible.
She believed her success lay in abiding by these values and that this deep fountain of knowledge had to be passed on.
So, along with her husband Vidyashankar Hoskere started Dhaatu, a non-profit organisation to impart value education. Let’s just say Hoskere began an epic journey of taking ‘epic’ classes at Dhaatu.
But she quickly felt that she needed puppets to tell the story better. She underwent rigorous training in puppetry with puppet master M R Ranganath Rao and later went to the Czech Republic to receive training in carpentry and design.
This was the start of her puppetry journey. Unsurprisingly, musicians, artists, and scholars came together to help her. And after a couple of shows, the audience served up a positive response, much to the delight of Hoskere. Things were falling in place.
Such an amazing journey, isn’t it?
And it’s not just been a personal accomplishment. She has been recognised and appreciated widely for her work.
Dhaatu has performed at various international puppet festivals in Russia, Morocco, China, Europe, and the US, and presented papers in prestigious platforms like the Paris 8 university; Academy Royal De Belgique, Brussels; Royal Academy of Belgium; Guimet Museum in Paris; International Puppet Festival Nanchong, China.
What’s more, she received the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy award for the year 2018 for her outstanding work in the field of puppetry.
Naturally, I had many questions to ask her. I wanted to know more about the art of puppetry and her journey with it all. And so, I did. Here’s the edited transcript of our conversation:
Could you tell me about Dhaatu puppets and what makes them special, especially in light of Navaratri celebrations?
Navaratri is celebrated in Dhaatu with social interaction, artistic representation of dolls, and stories presented specially for children. We keep the pattada bombe, the king and queen, which symbolise prakruthi and purusha, the female and male energies.
They are brought to life by keeping kalasha, a pot filled with water, and coconut on the day of paadya.
The dolls are displayed in small sections called story boxes, also referred to as static theatre. And stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, India’s temples, and the village lifestyle are presented. The traditional iconic steps of devatas or gods are put up.
This year, we have five-foot tall Gowri dolls which are decorated like actors to partake in the story presentation. This year, the main theme is Shri Krishna Sandhana from Udyoga Parva.
We have not just restricted ourselves to Indian dolls; we have dolls from different parts of the world which reminds us that Vasudaiva Kutumbakam is our guiding principle.
Puppetry is one of the oldest art forms to still be around. Please walk me through the history and evolution of this art form.
The history of puppetry can be represented best by a Sanskrit shloka from the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavata, which says:
yathā dāru-mayī yoṣit
evam īśvara-tantro 'yam
Here’s what this means: just as the wooden puppet dances to the desire of the puppeteer, so this world, controlled by Isvara, envelops both happiness and misery.
We find the reference of the wooden string puppet in Bhagavata, which is at least 5,000 years old. In the tenth century in poet Rajashekara’s Balaramayana, we find reference to the mechanised puppets of Sita, which make sound by the movement of lips.
Later, in eleventh century in the stories of Kashmiri poet Somadeva, we find reference to Yantra Putika or the mechanised puppet of Swayamprabha, who is the daughter of Maya. Some 300 to 400 years ago, there was an exchange of knowledge between India and Europe, India and Egypt, which has also travelled to China. This is all about wooden puppets.
Shadow puppetry is another form of puppetry. A shadow play reference comes in the Ramayana, where Hanuman is flying over the ocean and the Sun is the source of light. The shadow of Hanuman appears in the water, and Maharishi Valmiki poetically describes it as Simhika trying to capture the shadow.
Later in 1912, we see a revival of puppetry in Mysore, Tumkur and Eachanur. Puppetry in India is based on Natyashastra, and there are different forms of puppetry all across India.
There are various other art forms like painting, dancing, sculpting. What distinct expression does the puppetry art form allow you to explore?
The transmission of knowledge through puppets and storytelling using puppets are very different. Puppets are cute, they don’t have ego, and if I can get the control systems right, I can make them listen to me (she laughs).
A puppeteer needs to have qualities like creativity, have knowledge of literature, music, sound and light as well as stagecraft… how do you manage all these things?
Here’s what it takes to make a puppet. First, selecting the suitable wood, then carefully craft the wood, which requires cutting and carving tools. Basic drawing and painting skills to make the face so as to show the facial expression of the character. Then limbs are attached for movement.
Fortunately, we have simple systems that are effective compared to Western methodologies to bring out the balance, movement, and control systems. The joints come within the puppet whereas the control systems are outside the puppets, designed and created for the movement of the puppet.
After this, we need to define the timeline of the story to be presented. After all the stringing and control systems are tested, we start costuming, for which sewing skills are necessary. I make my own jewellery for the puppets with wood and foils. All these are made as prescribed in the Natyashastra, and we adhere to the traditional format.
After all this, the music, dialogues and script follow. Puppetry comes under proscenium theatre, so I have to design the stage and curtain and lighting, which are very important in visual arts. Not to mention, many rehearsals.
With all of these, production takes one-and-a-half years from conceptualisation to bringing it to stage. I have brought out productions like Harishchandra, Vijayanagara Vaibhava, Rajasuya Yaga, Abhijnaana Shakuntalam, and Malavikagnimitram.
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