Animated encounters

Puppetry

Negotiating different cultural spaces and finding resonance with an audience from a country with a strong tradition of puppet theatre like India is never easy, but not impossible either. Stephan V Lowis, the producer of ‘Sanjay and His Master’, an Indo-German puppet theatre performance, tells Varshini Murali.

Creative : German puppeteer Matthias Kutcha (left) with his puppets; producer Stephan Lowis (below)

The ticket said ages six years and up. And so, there we were at Ranga Shankara — two 24-year-olds alongside two maamis gracing 50, one being my very own mother.

You could have picked us out from the crowd for the lack of any accompanying toddler, but since ‘up’ was the operative word and our line of defense, we stood unperturbed.

The drama we had all lined up to see was ‘Sanjay and His Master’, an Indo-German project that proved to be a charming cocktail of puppetry, theatre and music. The show’s producer, Stephan V Lowis, had collaborated with director Dadi Pudumjee, founder of the Ishaara Puppet Theatre Trust, and German puppeteer Matthias Kutcha to come up with an hour-long adaption of a Buddhist tale taken from the Jatakas. Lowis, in fact, is founder and director of KinderKinder eV, a cultural organisation based out of Hamburg that engages kids in various artistic endeavours.
 
As the last round of applause faded away into excited murmurs that carried with it the audience’s afterthought, Lowis patiently took me through the details of his
organisation and the performance he had just orchestrated. KinderKinder, he says, “works with children, theatre and music.” Focussing mainly on big play events, its central activity revolves around an eight-week autumn festival where professional artistes are invited to present their work, be it music, dance or theatre, to children. Over the last couple of years, Lowis has been adding to the organisation’s profile with his own productions; 2011 saw the likes of ‘Sanjay and His Master’. 

This Indo-German venture can be traced back to 2009, when Lowis was sent to India as part of a delegation from the Hamburg Cultural Ministry. It was here that Lowis chanced upon Pudumjee and his work. Impressed, he introduced Pudumjee to Matthias, the German puppeteer he had known for years and worked with in two earlier productions — ‘Jazz for Monster’ with the North German Radio Bigband in 2004 and ‘Marzooq the Unlucky One’ in 2008, a depiction of an Egyptian fairy tale that combined Arabian music with Matthias’s puppet play.

After its initial premiere in Hamburg in October 2011, ‘Sanjay and His Master’ has been touring India, across seven cities, since late January. I wonder how such a story would have been received in front of a German audience, and when I ask Lowis the same, he is quick to record a distinct cultural difference in the reaction garnered from both audiences — “When Sanjay comes into Master Anand’s house, there are moments when the master’s daughter, Nandita, nosily glances at Sanjay. While the German children found this to be pretty natural, the Indian kids reacted rather strongly.”

‘Sanjay and His Master’ is an Indian story, tweaked by a German playwright, further honed and directed by an Indian director, strung together by three musicians hailing from Kolkata, and enacted to perfection by a German puppeteer. Together, they brought about a merger in many respects, in story and in style.  Despite the story’s many modifications from the German and Indian artistes, a process Lowis likened very much to a game of ping-pong, Pudumjee’s symbolic use of a lotus subtly reminds one of the play’s Buddhist origins. The lotus is a Buddhist symbol that indicates the progress of one’s soul and its enlightenment. And much like the Buddhist lotus, the Sanjay in this story is able to surpass his muddy ordeal and blossom to his full potential. 

No two people are ever the same, and it goes without saying that as puppeteers, Matthias and Pudumjee have very different approaches to their craft. Matthias, Lowis says, mostly works solo. Pudumjee, on the other hand, “does well-choreographed puppet shows with big masks and many people on stage.” While Matthias does retain his solo signature to a large extent, Pudumjee has added to the nature of his performance. Towards the end of the play, when Sanjay comes into his own, Matthias depicts Sanjay’s exhilaration by making Sanjay fly gleefully across the stage. “Such big movements,” Lowis adds, “were all inspired by the director.”

But wait, who exactly is Sanjay and how does Matthias come into the picture, you might ask? Well, Sanjay is the young boy Matthias follows through the ‘wooden-poled’ forest and over the illuminated river into Benaras’s lap, where the story unfolds. Taunted and booed by the audience for his miserable performance on the sitar, Sanjay seeks out the master musician of Benaras, the court-musician Anand, and begs him to teach him the art.

While Sanjay learns the ropes, or strings in this case, and overcomes his initial struggles in mastering the instrument, he also falls for his master’s daughter, Nandita. The story eventually boils down to a competition between master and student, each fighting to keep their place in the beloved city of Benaras, as the king feels that one court musician will be more than enough, and that he can only have the best. 

Matthias’s theatrical whole was the sum of seven parts: he was Matthias the puppeteer, Matthias the narrator, Matthias as Sanjay, Matthias as Master Anand, Matthias as Nandita, Matthias as king, and finally, Matthias the devil. For Matthias was the hand, and more notably, the voice behind Sanjay and Co. The mannerisms were just right, well, as right as they could ever be for a puppet. And the voice — perfectly pitched for each of his characters.

Master Anand’s sonorous slurps of tea or resonant snores that accompanied his afternoon nap had the children doubling up in laughter, and the parents stifling theirs. It didn’t matter if the parents were hushing or signalling towards their wards with a traditional ‘finger on the lips’ gesture, Matthias’s modulation was far too amusing for the kids to not show their delight. 

However, I sensed a few disjointed moments in time, particularly when the musicians took to the spotlight and filled in for Sanjay and Master Anand during their sitar practice sessions. In all fairness, there was a symbolic gesture by Matthias suggesting that the musical reins had been handed over to them.  But, as I sat and watched the musical interplay that occurred on the side while the puppets lay centre-stage, in the same position as they last were, I couldn’t help but wish for more clarity, or, as it should have been in this case, more synchrony. Perhaps, my observation stems from a worry over whether the younger ones in the audience might have grasped that the puppets were momentarily on hold and that the musicians would play their parts for a while. Then again, I might be giving six-year-olds far less credit than they actually deserve. Nevertheless, despite the numerous characters that sing and strum their way into this story, and the three talented musicians who deftly work their way in and out of the narrative, the show-stealer or hero, if you may, was not Sanjay or his Master, but Matthias alone.  

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