Visual arts easily connect people with every aspect of human life. And despite a declining audience, puppetry survives. “Though several performing arts are brought to the public sphere, many fail to get their due recognition,” says 65-year-old S Seethalakshmi, a traditional puppeteer who heads the group, The Indian Puppeteers. Having worked at the Central Leather Research Institute as an artisan, she has produced Tolu Bommalattam (leather puppet shows) on Indian mythology, social awareness and Puranic legends. Seethalakshmi, a recipient of Kalaimamani, Kalasaraswathi and Kala Bharathi awards, has also presented shadow theatrical programmes in other countries.
She says the art of pulling strings is not as easy as it looks. A disciple of MV Ramanamurthy, a renowned leather puppeteer of global fame, this Andhra-based artiste has also passed the legacy to her granddaughters. “During the shows, we’re completely engaged in presenting the form in a traditional way. But in non-ritualistic contexts, we have ideas but some of them are based on contemporary issues,” she adds.
Seethalakshmi says initially puppets were used to reach the rural folks to end the British rule. “Puppeteers were trained to spread messages to empower the youth about heath and sanitation which we hardly do now,” she tells.
The task of narrating a story through puppet requires detailing. “One has to prepare the script, add music and voice-over to it, give shape to the leather and add colours to it. The whole process is not a cakewalk,” explains Seethalakshmi. “The craft of leather puppets originated in Nimmalakunta village in Andhra Pradesh. The patronage of the art has declined drastically after the advent of television and internet.”
So how was the puppet trend before? Seethalakshmi explains that a lamp which emits yellow colour on the curtain would be kept with an illuminated two-feet space between the wooden shaft and plain cloth veil. That was where the part-perforated puppets would dramatically perform from the masterly hands of the artistes. “The traditional role of women in the art has been making puppets and though puppetry seems outmoded, with lots of new ideas, it could be transferred to the younger generation with no compromise in quality,” beams Seethalakshmi. “It’s more like a family affair where the art is passed down within a circle.”
She rues the lack of appreciation. “We perform when someone books us to entertain guests at hotels, weddings and parties. The amount of hard work that goes into staging of shows, far outweighs the remuneration,” she tells. “When I break certain boundaries to make people enjoy, some are not okay with it and that’s the only fear I have in my mind,” explains Seethalakshmi.
The puppeteer is well versed in all forms of puppet—string, rod, gloves and leather. So how does she determine the story for her next show? She says it all depends on the response of her previous show. With all praise to the co-ordination, the artiste is concerned on backgrounding and teamwork. Not surprisingly, Seethalakshmi has acquired a deep grasp over various aspects of the art, such as music, dance and so on. Interestingly, she says that puppetry has widened the caste horizons.
Talking on yesteryears’ puppeteers, the artiste cites them as god-fearing and respectable individuals. “Even now puppetry is perceived to be a cheap art which is disheartening,” says Seethalakshmi who conducts workshops for school students and teachers regularly at cultural centres.
Unhappy with the government’s initiatives on improving the trend of puppetry, Seethalakshmi laments, “Private sponsorship isn’t enough as every show needs at least ` two to three lakh as an investment. What I’m now is because of my own wealth. I put in money for my own artistic pleasure and if government supports the puppeteers’ association for the development of arts, it would be helpful.” After all, money is needed for everything, she grins.