A house of dolls

Heritage

A house of dolls

Pulling the right strings: Narahari Shastri has a treasure of puppets in his house. Photos by the author

When six-year-old Adarsh hovers around his grandfather Narahari Shastri, keen to assist him in building a proper stage for a puppet show, litte does he realise that he is an integral part in carrying forward a tradition that has passed through five generations.
Narahari Shastri at 78 years of age is no spring chicken himself, but when he lovingly picks up Sathyabhama’s puppet and readies the strings for a little demonstration, his passion and devotion for the art is evident.

He has single-handedly attempted to revive the nearly forgotten art of traditional puppetry and more than 25 years after he began the effort, his rewards can be seen in the tremendous interest shown by his children and grandchildren in carrying the legacy forward.

Shastri is the founder of Suthramela troupe, which showcases the rod form of puppetry (salaki gombe). This means that the puppets are hooked up to iron rods and also connected with strings for manipulation simultaneously with the hands and the head movements of a puppeteer. The themes are mythological stories accompanied by music and singing and some interesting gimmicks.

The beginnings of puppetry in the family make for an interesting story. Around 140 years ago, Narasingappa of Agalakote village in Magadi was enamoured by the puppet shows being performed by Kudur Shamanna, a famous puppeteer. Keen to learn the art, he approached Shamanna only to be turned away.

Undeterred, Narasingappa took to climbing the sloping roofs of the quadrangular houses where the shows were performed and learnt the ropes of the art. By the time he was spotted by Shammanna’s people and chased away, Narasingappa had already learnt enough to start his own shows. He was ably assisted in this venture by his sister, who made the puppets and dressed them in elaborate finery. So good were the quality of the puppets that most of them exist in a good condition even now.

Agalakote Ramaiah, the grandson of Narasingappa, inherited the dolls and the tradition, but did not pursue it wholeheartedly and stuck to preserving the dolls and giving shows annually. Ramaiah’s son Satyanarayana still performs shows at Agalakote, but the art reached Bangalore because of Ramaiah’s son-in-law, Narahari Shastri. “He decided to give the art away to me along with his daughter,” laughs Shastri. The daughter, Srilakshmi, even to this day, takes care of the jewellery and dresses that adorn the beautiful puppets.

An elaborate affair

The puppeteer at work. Photos by the authorThe staging of the show itself is a complicated affair. Sometimes there are as many as 18 characters that are required for a show. The proscenium is two-and-a-half feet across and having six people manipulate the puppets can be quite daunting. Shastri is assisted by his entire family and a few friends, who take care of different aspects of staging a show. Right from the script, songs, music, lighting, stage management to readying the puppets, his two sons and their wives, his two daughters and his grandchildren take time out from their professional lives to pitch in for the production of a show. His eldest son, Ravindra, an IT professional is comfortable in the role of the puppeteer. “I have been manipulating the puppets for sometime, but now I am planning to learn how to make the puppets,” he says. The puppets are handmade and are made from the wood of the saale tree (Alstonia Scholaris). The wood is soft and easy to manipulate and unlike other woods, does not need any patchwork on it even after a long time.

The lighter puppets weigh one-and-a-half kg, but the heavier ones weigh as much as seven kgs, making it quite tricky to manipulate them. Scripts and songs have to be written afresh each time and can take six months when they decide to stage a new episode of a mythological story and inspiration can strike anytime.

“Once I was stuck at a particular song for a new episode that we were writing the script for,” narrates Shastri. Walking to his daughter’s house, he was suddenly stuck with a line for the song and by the time he reached his daughter’s house, he had the entire song ready. Sudha, his daughter, was taken aback to see her father enter her house, snatch a piece of paper and pen down all the lyrics, before even uttering a word. Such dedication rewards itself with an increasing demand for puppet shows. Popular mythological episodes like Sri Krishna Parijaatha, Indra Garva Bhanga, Krishna Tulabhaara, Haridasa Krishna, Narakasura Vadhe and Prahlada Charithe are forever in demand.

“In the last two years, we have received a lot of appreciation and though TV has decreased our audience tremendously, our style has its own audience,” Shastri says.
Ravindra has another take on it. “We have a lot of people in our generation who want to keep the art alive, but do not really know how to go about it.”

But like most folk traditions that have lost their former audience and glory, satisfactory remuneration is hard to come by for this art as well. “The amount we get for putting up a show is not encouraging and sometimes, I pay out of my own pocket. If we get anything extra, it is invested in the next production,” confesses Shastri.

But as long as little Adarsh keeps coming back to his grandfather to learn, puppetry is bound to generate audience and interest for generations to come.

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