In a cosy corner of the living room, a white dhoti-clad Tinku spells out tips on healthy eating habits. The gentle drawl accompanied by gestures with his hands kindles your interest. Not to be left behind, the wide-eyed, chirpy woodpecker Paru breaks into a melodious song about saving her habitat. Gooey-green Pachai Thavalai (green frog) decides to make his move, shakes his cloth body, and rolls out the effects of pollution on a sombre note. Through all the drama, R Bhanumathi remains the cynosure of the eyes of the audience of her shows.
The ace storyteller is at home in the world of puppetry, her first language of creative expression. Her passion comes through every time she weaves magic with her deft moves and brings to life a variety of characters. From papier-mache, fur, spongy-foam to other such knickknacks, the down-to-earth artist seamlessly blends her colourful yarns with the striking personalities of her motley troupe of dolls. The nature educator, puppeteer and managing trustee of Pavai Centre of Puppetry, strings together her inspirational journey for us.
Finding the inspiration
“It’s the passion that drives me,” she grins, explaining how her accidental foray into the world of puppets happened when she was pursuing her Masters in Community Resource Management at Delhi University. She pieced together puppets for a college project on traditional communication. Soon her interest kindled, she engaged in pet projects to learn the ropes of the craft. While serving as an educational officer with World Wildlife Fund, she realised that puppetry could be used as a tool to create awareness about wildlife protection.
“We developed scripts on different types of dinosaurs like the tyrannosaurus and allosaurus. But it was not about the performance, it was more about promoting nature conservation,” says the innovator, who even delved into the world of shadow puppetry spanning the four southern states, for her PhD thesis.
Bhanumathi’s in-depth studies on puppetry traditions became an eye-opener, exposing her to a realm of possibilities. She ardently dwells on the unique features of shadow puppetry in Kerala that stirred her fascination.
“It’s a unique form as it’s performed in the absence of an audience; it’s only for the eyes of goddess Bhagavathi. They narrate the Kamba Ramayana through shadow puppets, night after night,” she recounts, explaining how the place of worship with decorated with oil lamps, and lilting music creates a surreal setting for the magical tryst.
Making a difference
She realised through years of meticulous research that puppetry had myriad applications, including in skill-development and livelihood enhancement.
Bhanumathi to her credit even nurtured the creativity of tsunami-affected women in three fishing hamlets in 2004 with her teaching skills. “They made characters from their own community using jute,” she reminisces.
Having decided to focus on social and environmental issues, she conceived diverse themes for her narratives, ranging from addressing the distinct features of wetland ecosystems to school dropouts. “Every character has a purpose,” she says.
Making it participatory has always been the USP of her shows. She describes the subtle nuances of Pachai Thavalai. “He explains that if frogs are dying in water bodies then it’s due to pollution. Their skin is sensitive to pollution. I then wind it up with a song; they sing along, clap and take home the idea,” she says.
The way ahead
Bhanumathi has several projects in the pipeline, including the portrayal of ‘Traditional Costumes of India Through Puppets’. For further details about her work, check her official website www.puppetryindia.org