BENGALURU: Circa 1988. Lone breadwinner of the family Narahari Sastry K had two options — to continue in a central government job and take care of his family or to follow his heart and revive the almost dead art form of puppetry. Almost 32 years later, sitting next to an array of puppets, he utters, “I followed my heart and today, I am the most happiest person in the world.”
Eighty-five-year-old Sastry’s contribution in reviving puppetry in Karnataka is exceptional. Despite serious threats from television and new media, Sastry has managed to pull the strings right to keep the audience hooked since the 1980s. Sastry founded the Suthramela troupe in 1983. The troupe, which sees active participation from each and every member of his family, showcases the rod form of puppetry (Salaki Gombe).
In this, hands of the puppets are hooked to iron rods and also connected with strings for manipulation simultaneously with the hands and the head movements of a puppeteer. The themes include mythological stories or social drama, accompanied by music and singing. In Karnataka today, Suthramela is the only active rod puppetry troupe, claims Sastry. Sastry learnt the art from his fatherin- law M R Ramai a h and took inspiration from Ramaiah ’s brother M R Ranganatha Rao. In fact, in the early 80s, Rao and Sastry used to give shows together.
Owing to huge demand, they later split up. Today, every member of Sastry’s family – children, daughters-in law, sons-in-law and grandchildren — actively take part every time Sastry puts up a show. Even at this age, the minute Sastry picks up a puppet, he becomes the character. His hands, legs and head start moving synchronously while narrating the dialogue of the character simultaneously. Salaki Gombe is no child’s play. Each puppet weighs around 8 to 10 kilos. And each puppeteer will have to manage 2 to 3 puppets.
To put up a one-hour show, it costs around `15,000 to `20,000. This includes making of new puppets, accesorising them, setting up of stage and more. Sastry says he cannot reuse a puppet because that might just kill the entire show. “At a time 4 to 5 characters will be performing on the stage and there will be equal number of people pulling the strings in the background.
As soon as the character walks out of the stage, the puppeteer will have to gear up to handle another character. Most of the time he or she will have to change his voice as well,” he says. “Salaki Gombe is performed on a 6ft stage. Each show will have a minimum of 8 to 10 puppets, which can go up to 16. While my sons and grandchildren help me out as co-puppeteers, my daughters and daughters-in-law provide female vocal support. My wife readies every female character. The way she drapes saree to these dolls is unmatchable.
I can handle the show single-handedly, but this is one arena I’ve given up,” he laughs. The sprightly man still takes up most of the shows that come his way. Currently he is bogged down by ill health and therefore his family members are managing it. “But in the next three months, I will be fit enough to run the show again,” smiles a confident Sastry. Over the past 33 years, Sastry has presented over 1,000 shows across the state. His shows are widely recognised. Many awards have come his way too, including the Karnataka Yakshagana and Bayalata Akademi award, Nadaprabhu Kempegowda Award, Karnataka Ganakala Parishat - “Kalavida” Award and many more.
Sasrty single-handedly manages everything in the literal sense! From writing the script to deciding on the puppet’s attire to detailing of the puppet’s eyes and limbs to setting up of stage, he always calls the shots. He creates every puppet with love and a lot of detailing. “Every aspect such as accessorizing the puppet to colour of the puppet has to be taken care of. Apart from clothes, every doll’s skin colour has to be different. Like, for example, Lord Krishna puppet has to be blue in colour; and the demons are usually red in colour. And shades of other characters range from brown to dusky, depending on the script,” he says.
HOUSE OF DOLLS
The puppets are handmade from the wood of the saale tree (Alstonia Scholaris). It takes hours of hard work to up to almost a week to bring these dolls to life. While most puppet shows take place against a black background, Shastry ensures that he uses a few theme-based backgrounds, hand painted by him of course, to make a difference and to emphasize the importance of the scene. Scripts and songs have to be written afresh each time and can take four to five months when they decide to stage a new episode. Hundreds of dolls are lying in Sastry’s house even today. “The saree worn by the Sathyabhama puppet (from mythological character) is an original Kancheevaram saree that costs around `10,000. “We treat every doll like God,” says the uncompromising artist.
Sastry took puppetry to a whole new level with upper rod puppetry, a successful experimentation. In this, the show happens 2 inches above the head-level of the tallest man in the group. Puppeteers stand behind the screen, lift the dolls above their head-level and stage a show. The dolls used in these shows weigh around 1 to 2 kilos. “Unlike the other form of puppetry, here I can use the entire stage for the show,” says Sastry.
BREAKING THE MYTH
Many usually associate puppetry with mythology or as a means to narrate the Panchatantra stories. But Sastry decided to break the monotony. He started scripting socially relevant issues and giving life to it through puppets. Sastry fondly recalls his show ‘Farmers and loans’. “Banks had decided to venture into giving loans to farmers. But they had a tough time convincing farmers, as they could not really understand the process. They asked me to base a show on it and that’s when I wrote the script simplifying the process. The show was a hit,” he says. Bad Company tells the story of how a bad boy destroys the life of a good student in a school. This was extensively performed in many schools across the state. Then there is Dheera Balaka, which narrates the story of a young boy who accidentally ventures into a forest and becomes friends with animals.