CHENNAI: In October 15, 2021, an elusive man-eater tiger was captured alive near Masinagudi, Tamil Nadu. Even as the locals were vehemently proposing for it to be killed, an awareness campaign by a single-man army was drawing attention to refrain from such acts. Puppeteer J Anandaraj, at the nearby Elephant Feeding Point in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, was explaining the consequences of man-animal conflict through ventriloquism with his monkey.
“I wanted people to understand that a forest can thrive only if humans and animals live in harmony. In a situation of that kind, had I addressed this to them vocally, they would have reacted aggressively. The crowd thought the monkey was real and hurled abuses at it for stealing bananas from them, I had to reassure them that it was a prop,” recollects the art teacher at Government Higher Secondary School, Vilankurichi, Coimbatore.
Of moves and messages
For the past 25 years, Anandaraj has been wielding string puppetry and ventriloquism as weapons to lend his voice against pressing social and environmental problems. Life got more meaningful when he met S Bharathidasan, secretary, Arulagam (a Coimbatore-based organisation) on a hiking expedition to Anamalai Tiger Reserve. “He got me an opportunity to train the students of Avinashilingam University in Bommalattam. They, as part of NSS, performed it in remote villages to spread awareness. Besides entertainment, I realised the myriad potentials of puppetry,” shares a grateful Anandaraj, who presented a Bommalattam act on behalf of Salim Ali Centre For Ornithology And Natural History in a conclave in 2019.
Some of Anandaraj’s major contributions have been in the field of wildlife conservation. He has extensively collaborated with Arulagam to highlight the importance of endangered species. “Arulagam has done a detailed study on vultures, their habitat, threats, and steps to conserve the population. For this, I travelled extensively to rural areas and interacted with tribal people through puppetry. I was privileged to perform in front of former President late APJ Abdul Kalam at an event for Siruthuli NGO on environmental challenges,” he beams.
A ripple effect
Recounting one of his memorable and impactful performances, Anandaraj says, “A well-wisher introduced me to the tribe of Bargur hills in Tamil Nadu. Many surrounding hamlets had a superstitious belief of killing chameleons wherever they spotted them. When asked, they would say that seeing one could take away their life or induce harm. After my act, the change in them was palpable when they pledged to not harm the animal anymore. There can’t be a better reward than bringing about an instant change in the mindset of people.”
Anandaraj has been passing some of his life lessons to coming generations to keep the art form alive and relevant. “It takes over 20 artistes to pull off each performance and keep the audience engaged. Operators, musicians, dubbing artistes, backstage technicians, all put their heart and soul into every act. Unfortunately, artistes are moving out of this profession due to a lack of opportunities and poor pay. The legacy must continue and I’ve trained my students to execute an entire act in my absence. I’ve trained B.Ed students so it reaches far through them,” says the puppeteer, whose students have won state and national level awards.
Puppetry, like other traditional performing art forms, has been losing its sheen in recent years. But, artistes like Anandaraj are going the extra mile to keep the curtains up.