He is the last surviving artiste of rod pupptery in Odisha. Ideally, Keonjhar-based Maguni Chandra Kuanr, 84, who has been performing to keep Kathi Kandhei (rod puppetry) — one of the four distinct puppetry styles prevalent in the country alive in Odisha for decades, should be relaxing and devoting more time to training disciples. Instead, he has to work hard. Harder than ever. “Passion can’t survive on an empty stomach.” Every year, he and his troupe Utkal Biswakarma Kalakunj give more than 50 puppetry performances to keep this dying artform alive.
He founded the Utkal Biswakarma Kalakunj in 1955 and ever since then the versatile artiste has taken rod puppetry to another dimension. Kuanr handles puppets, designs them, crafts costumes, develops screenplays, decides music, designs stage properties and craft and even lends a variety of background voices suiting the characters in his plays.
The beginning of the journey for this artiste was not an easy one though. Son of a zamindar of the erstwhile princely state of Keonjhargarh, young Kuanr used to watch the local Jhara (fishermen) community (considered Dalits) making a living by playing puppets fixed on a wooden rod in front of houses. A Central Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, he decided to practice the art form, despite the stiff resistance from his agrarian Khandayat community. “I was keen to learn playing the puppets, but my father would not allow me as it was the avocation of the Dalits. Yet, with the help of the carpenter who was making the puppets, I secretly met the master puppeteer Makaradhwaja Jhara and started learning the art from him,” recollected Kuanr. When the master passed away and he had no heir, Kuanr, in his early 20s then, decided to face his father’s ire and an orthodox society to perform puppetry in public.
Today, he is credited with having revived a rare art form and win several awards from the Government and other organisations working in this field. Over the years, Kuanr’s magical fingers have transformed the crude puppetry form into a polished folk art style.
Before he took over, rod puppetry in Odisha was caught in caste clamps, unable to deal with the idea of an egalitarian world. A lot had to change before this art could find new audiences, new contexts for performance and new patronage. Traditionally, puppetry shows had been a source of humorous entertainment along with moral lessons based on legends drawn from the epics and puranas. “The art had to find a new order of existence in the changed society because of a variety of factors including large scale urbanisation and migration of communities. We created a new functional link between the new society and the rare art. In the process, experiments have also been made on theme of the puppetry shows,” says Kuanr, who was in Bhubaneswar recently for the Dhauli Kalinga Mahotsav where he was felicitated with the Buddha Samman.
Kuanr’s success lies in the innovations he has brought to the art. “Change is imperative to keep an art form going. In Kathi Kandhe, we introduced new elements,” he says. He included new themes; made beautifully decorated dolls and puppets; played hitherto not used traditional musical instruments; put colourful backdrops and sang songs and recited dialogues while manipulating the puppets.
The exponent feels that the rod puppet theatre is meeting a slow death. Though in the initial years, Kuanr’s earnings were good, the advent of television and other forms of entertainment has struck a big blow. This year he has given more than 10 performances in Bhubaneswar including those at popular festivals being hosted by the Government of Odisha. But the financial crunch is a concern. “We are invited to perform at places, but never paid accordingly. Television has also affected the demand for our shows. If Utkal Biswakarma Kalakunj continues to perform Kathi Kandhei, that is because we want this art form to survive against all odds. But sustenance is an issue,” the veteran artiste rued. Many of his disciples, including his two sons, have stopped practising the art for better career options.
What would happen to the art after him? “I have trained many people, but it’s difficult for them to sustain a living from the art, “ says Kuanr, who is bravely soldiering on with his troupe.