Dhaatu International Puppet Festival brings alive a dying art

Dhaatu International Puppet Festival brings alive a dying art

The Dhaatu International Puppet Festival held in Bangalore recently brought together 100 artiste from 5 countries. Vidya Murali brings alive three of the shows, two from India and one from Italy

“Abhimanyu Kalaga” - Traditional String puppetry by Kamalanjaneya Sootrada Gombeyata from Ranebennur, Karnataka

An undiluted, unmodified traditional puppet play derived from the Doddata form, usually played in village squares during local festivals.

Doddata is a medieval form of street play in Karnataka in which heavily costumed men play stories from epics with exaggerated mannerisms. Their trademark accessory is the Bhujakeerthi, a huge ornamental attachment to the shoulder which makes the player look larger than life. The singing and instrumental music are, by default, loud and raucous to reach all villagers gathered in the square.

The Ranebennur troupe had used the Doddata format for narrating an episode from the Mahabharata, using string puppets .

While the puppeteers were hidden and manipulated from above, only the “maddale” drum player sat, visibly, on one side of the little stage. He needed to be there because, between scenes, the Kodangi engaged with him, making him the butt of his jokes and torments! The Kodangi is the traditional comedian, vidhushaka, who has no connection with the main theme of the play, but keeps the audience entertained till the next act is ready to be played.

The show started with a Ganesh Arati performed by a female puppet in flowing skirt, carrying a live diya. It takes an expert to keep diya and puppet hand (attached to different strings) together through the entire song and repeated waving actions.

Since it was a Mahabharatha episode, there was no dearth of characters! All the puppets were spirited, especially the evil ones who broke into a boisterous fit every now and then!

There were some nice touches like flower petals raining on Krishna and Arjuna, a group of girl puppets doing a lively kolatta (dandiya kind of dance) by expertly tapping each other’s sticks without their strings getting entangled!
The Narrator and Singer maintained the same pitch and volume as they use in village squares, perhaps forgetting that it was a closed auditorium, fitted with mikes too! Duryodhana’s tantrums almost brought the roof down!

It was wonderful to watch a play with its rustic flavour intact. The tunes, the dialogues, the authentic handmade costumes and ornaments were all very endearing.

Nokku Vidya Paavakali by Shiva Shakthi Nokku Vidya, Kerala

We are familiar with string puppets, rod puppets and shadow puppets and we have a fair basic knowledge of how these work. But Nokku Vidya Paavakali is something altogether different. A unique art, almost unknown beyond the Alapuzha region where the sole surviving practitioner lives. It is a difficult art form that combines puppetry and acrobatic balancing acts.

There were no stage settings or curtains. The young K.S. Renjini was the sole performer. The theme for the day was a set of selected verses from “Kilipattu Ramayanam”, a 17th Century classic by the venerable Ezhutthacchan. This retelling of the Ramayana, in Kilipattu (ie Bird song) genre, calls upon a parrot to narrate instances from Rama’s story. So the puppet performance started with the green Kili puppet, decked with a piece of brocade cloth.

The puppets used in Nokku Vidya are small and made of very light wood, not weighing more than 500gms. They are attached to a stick about 2.5ft long and their action is confined to only the small platform on which they stand.
The singer began singing soulfully, keeping time softly on a small drum.

The young lady sat down on the stage, with her legs stretched out in front of her and lifted her face upwards. An assistant handed her the puppet on the stick and she carefully hoisted it above her head and brought it to sit on the space between her nose and upper lip. As the audience caught its collective breath, she slowly removed her supporting hand and had the stick, with the puppet atop it, balanced ramrod straight by itself.

As the mellifluous song flowed, the young lady gently tugged on a string hanging from the doll above. The puppet was animated! It flayed its arms, turned this way and that. The puppeteer’s eyes were riveted on the doll in complete concentration, her rigid body moving ever so imperceptibly to adjust the balance of the stick when the movements of the puppet affected it.

“Nokku” in Malayalam means “ to see , to be watchful “ and is descriptive of the basis of this art, ie the puppeteer’s unwavering watch over the puppet standing high above the head .

As the stanza ended, it was time for scene change, but it was simple and quick. The young lady lowered the stick and took up another one, with two puppets on the little platform, which the assistant brought in. Again, this was hoisted and balanced as before and the gist of the verse acted out by the tugging of strings hanging down. One of her hands remained firmly on her lap while the other one manipulating the string never rose above chest level.

It was amazing to see that Renjini took no breaks to even shift her legs. Scene after scene played out almost mechanically, it was an incredible show of nervous strength and immense balancing skill.

After the pattabhishekam scene, there was a “snake dance” to the ever popular “Aadu pambe” theme, with Renjini balancing a stiffened fabric snake on her upper lip and swaying her head to create the sway of the hooded cobra.
In another extraordinary feat, she balanced a wheel upon the stick, from the rim of which hung tiny pots. She then proceeded to insert thin sticks ( the dried midrib of coconut leaf), one by one, into the pots - not by hand but by her mouth ! Clenching the stick between her teeth, she worked her jaws expertly to guide the stick into a hanging pot. An unbelievable expertise that can be gained only by hard practise. In this episode, there were no puppets, but only a pair of propeller like wings which she got whirring after the last pot was done.

When the show ended to thunderous applause, Renjini took questions from the audience to share insights about this special art. It transpired that Nokku Vidya Pavakali has been in her family for close to 400 years and has always been performed by women. They once entertained kings and zamindars during Onam celebrations.

All the puppets are handmade by the family, out of light wood and strung in innovative ways that will create interesting action with minimal tugging.
Renjini learnt the art from her grandmother and practises manoeuvres every single day. And yes, it is definitely strenuous and taxes the back and neck muscles. Apparently, it took her two whole years just to balance the stick on her upper lip. And there have been mishaps. But, like a true artiste, she perseveres.

Renjini’s sole motivation, and source of strength is her passion in keeping this vanishing art form alive.

“Pay Attention To These Two” - Marionette show by The Compagnia La Fabiola, Italy

This one was tailor made for today’s kids. And what a great hit it was!
The set consisted of a small dummy cupboard, on which were scattered a few things to make it look like a cosy kids room. There were only two characters: Guilio, an adorable dog that loved candies and Fabiola, a little girl with some attitude !

Giancarlo Casati and Nives Valsecchi created the perfect mood for fun and frolic with their very entry and greeting in endearingly faulty, accented English. There was no story as such, because the act was designed for performance in public squares, with the puppets interacting with audience standing at close range.

In a bid to recreate that ambience, the puppeteers called for kid volunteers to go up and sit on the stage. Some children, egged on by parents, were shy and hesitant to begin with, but by the end of the show, Guilio and Fabiola had them eating out of their hands, at times literally!

Guilio, animated by Nives , was reportedly jetlagged and his attempts to rise and shine were amazingly natural , what with his huge eyes gradually drooping shut , his back slacking down, wanting to curl back to sleep and his irritable ruffling of his fur , scratching the ear and getting startled by the audience he ‘suddenly noticed’ ! He then got very stubborn, refusing to do any tricks Giancarlo prompted him to do. Till the bribe of a candy fixed him! Hardly any words spoken, but everything conveyed excellently through action and expression alone.

Fabiola awoke reluctantly too, testing the ground gingerly before standing up . But she loved the kids and went around greeting them enthusiastically. She played jokes on Giancarlo, tried to get Guilio to play with her, soon lost interest and demanded to be fed . In one remarkable segment, the puppet visibly emptied a glass of milk, slurping noisily through a straw! That was where reality blurred and the audience was hurtled into the realm of Magic.
Fabiola’s instinctive reaction of posing , diva-like , to a photographer who got close, had the house roaring with laughter .

The two puppets were amazingly sophisticated in design , each animated by two sets of innumerable and almost invisible strings . They moved not only every part of the body but also every detail on their faces: eyes, eyebrows, ears, nose et al. It took only a couple of minutes into the show to forget totally that they were mere dolls.

The puppeteers are trained clowns , have been performing puppetry since 1995 and keep upgrading the mechanism in their dolls to create better and better moments of enchantment .