Toy story with a twist

ON A SONG

Toy story with a twist

HAPPY TO BE HERE Anupama Hoskere at Dhaatu puppet theatre. DH PIC BY SRIKANTA SHARMA R

What’s an engineer, with an MS in computer networking, messing about with puppets for? “That’s a long story of passion and high drama,” says Anupama Hoskere, dancer, puppeteer and Karnataka Sangeetha Natya Academy member.

Her story began in Bangalore in the 70s, shifted gears to Colorado and Los Angeles in the 80s, and retraced its steps back to Bangalore in the 90s to result in the founding of Dhaatu, which hosted the first National Puppet Theatre Festival in Bangalore early this year. She is currently teaching, researching and promoting integrated puppet theatre in Karnataka.

To appreciate the milestones in her eventful journey across cultures and continents, I spend an afternoon  with Anupama, who with her husband, Vidyashankar Hoskere, walked away from a good life in the United States to return to her roots.

With a BE degree from BMS College of Engineering and a Master’s degree from Bangalore University and rigorous training in bharatanatyam under guru V S Kaushik and guru Narmada, Anupama boarded a flight to Colorado to join her husband Vidyashankar, who was a student pursuing his MS degree there.

Clearly, the couple has an apetite for adventure. “Yes, to us innocents, life was one big adventure at that time. We had little money, but we had a glorious time. I was five months pregnant when I danced at the Indian Independence Day function in Colorado. My gynaecologist Julie Carpenter encouraged me as she was a ballet teacher herself,” recounts Anupama.

Along with their first baby — Prakruti—came Vidyashankar’s first job offer, which called for a move to Los Angeles. “We moved from Colorado to LA in an old car which had all our wordly possessions! In fact, the first piece of furniture we bought was a crib for our baby. Till then, we had been using sleeping bags,” she says.

In LA, Anupama earned her MS degree from Califronia State Longbeach University in Electrical & Computer Science in ’93, attending evening classes, studying in the college library till the wee hours while Vidyashankar came back from work to manage the baby and get her a midnight snack, which they shared on her campus even as their toddler slumbered in the car!

It was a tough but memorable time, so a couple of years later when Anupama spoke of moving back to India with the kids (their son Vedhas was born in LA), their friends and families were mortified!  

“Everyone thought we were crazy to leave behind good jobs in a booming economy in the US in 1995. Some friends took a bet of $100 each that we would regret our decision and be back in three months’ time.” Needless to say, the Hoskeres won the bet.

“Back in Bangalore, I was happy to be a ‘basic Basavanagudi person’ as I had grown sick of the pretentious life in LA. Our hearts belonged here in India, specifically in Bangalore. The move was very tough: I had to struugle for a phone connection,  for school admissions, for a gas connection etc. I also had to rework on relationships as people couldn’t understand why I had to move back with the kids when we had such a good life in the US. My husband followed seven months later, and we were convinced that our happiness lay here,” she says.

Once home, Anupama began exploring the issue of roots and identity, and that was how the idea of Dhaatu was born.  “I wanted my kids to grow beyond their school lessons. I went back to the epics to give them strength and resilience to face life. I could see the change in them. I began Dhaatu for my kids but the neighbourhood kids joined in and soon we were running a full-fledged centre,” she explains.

Anupama’s epic workshops grew to include puppetry. Back in LA, she had been fascinated by Disneyland and its puppet shows. She wanted to do something similar with Indian stories. So, she set out to learn puppetry.  Guru M R Ranganatha Rao, she confesses, was very skeptical of her at first. “Foreign-returned dancer with strange whims,” that’s how he’d describe her, but she won him over with her persistence and dedication.

 “I leant rod puppetry from him as that was the only classical form available in those days. Being a dancer, I added legs to the rod puppets and the beauty of the dance form was passed on to the puppets,” she says.

Dhaatu Puppet Theatre is unique because it showcases the grandeur of the puppet theatre tradition in Karnataka, covering rod, shadow, string and glove puppets. “We have borrowed from bharatanatyam in terms of costuming; our music is simple as the aim is to communicate with the audience. We entertain but with values,” she says of Dhaatu’s epic productions.

Her moment in the sun came when Dhaatu’s first national puppet theatre festival was unveiled in May this year. Attended by stalwarts like Meena Naik from PrithviTheatre Mumbai, G Venu with his troupe ‘Natana Kairali’ from Kerala, Ramesh Kasargod with his ‘Gopala Krishna Gombe Aata’, Seetahlakshmi Venkateshan with her ‘India Puppeteers’ from Chennai, it was a heartwarming success.

Dhaatu has 10 productions - all from the epics, except Vijayanagara Vaibhava which was designed for the Hampi Utsava. Bhakta Prahlada, under production, will be premiered on November 21 at the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple in the City. Bhakta Prahalada, she reveals, will borrow movements from the Eechanur style fo puppetry, which has little or no stylised form.

At the moment, Anupama has her hands full with the revival of ancient puppetry forms but she has a dream. “Like Rangashankara is to theatre in Bangalore, we need a space for puppet theatre. In Europe and the United States, puppetry is respected as a composite art. India, especially South India, has such a rich tradition of puppetry. It would be tragic to let such potential go waste,” says the busy mom of three (Divya, her youngest, was born here in Bangalore) who is happy that she traded steak parties in LA for ‘saaru-palya’ back home.

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