Master of puppets

Dolls talk

Hema Vijay interacts with puppeteer Suresh Dutta, who believes that the art form is an educative, well-rounded activity. And his life is reflective of this...

At 83, Suresh Dutta may have a few teeth missing, but he has lost none of his fascination for puppets, something which began when he was a child. 

This fascination was sparked off when his mother amused him with tales enacted with the few dolls they had, set off to great effect by her animated descriptions and storytelling. 
 
The passion persisted and grew over the years, and he taught himself every nuance of the art. Over time, he became an expert puppeteer of every genre. 
 
Suresh Dutta has performed across the globe and is acknowledged as one of the greatest puppeteers ever. 
 
Stopping over in Chennai for a workshop at Dakshina Chithra, before setting off to Delhi’s famous World Puppet Festival, Dutta amazes you by the vitality he radiates. 

“Well, I get up with the Sun and birds, do pranayama every day. I never miss my daily walk, and I drink six litres of water a day. I guess, all this gives me the strength and energy to travel and work,” he says. 
 
Of course, he leaves one aspect behind — his zest for life unmentioned — his longstanding passion for puppetry, which makes it as effortless and inevitable in his life as breathing.

An element of challenge

“The art of puppetry is like no other. It transcends genres and involves so many disciplines, including performing arts like acting, storytelling, dance, theatre, mime, recitation, ventriloquism; visual arts like drawing, painting, sculpture, woodcraft, light and colour effects; and literary facets like script, literature and folk tales. 

Perhaps, it is this element of challenge in puppetry that has kept my interest in them alive for so long,” voices Dutta, who also happens to be a painter. 
 
In fact, Dutta makes a living from painting and puppetry is just a passion that he pursues. Dutta was born in the village of Hutsibari, now in Bangladesh.

A mastercraftsman who personally makes many of the puppets he works with, Dutta says, “Anything can be used as a puppet, when manipulated by man.” 
 
Dutta himself had begun with making clay idols and using them as puppets. 
 
The inspiration for this was sparked off as he watched the village priest make clay idols during Durga Puja. 

The first puppet he made was when he was a child, when he rescued a Ganesha idol that was being immersed during the Vinayak Chaturthi festivities. 
 
“I took it, balanced it on a stick and tried animating the idol. My mother was so angry,” Dutta reminisces with a chuckle. 
 
Years later, he understood that puppets were a great way to communicate with children, and his puppet shows on nation-building and moral values became a rage in his home state.

“Communication with children gets easier and effective with puppets. Moral, cultural, civic and social values can be communicated without sounding boring,” says Dutta.   
 
While becoming puppeteer extraordinaire, Dutta has traversed an extraordinary path that has left him with a panoramic perspective. 

As a child, he learnt mime from watching the many mime groups that were invited to stay at their home by his mother. 

At the Albert Temple of Science and School of Art, where he enrolled himself, his teachers included Phani Bhushan, a folk-theatre actor, who taught him to observe nature and capture its reality in art. 
 
Along the way, he also learnt Manipuri, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, for which he trained under Balakrishna Menon. 
 
Incidentally, he considers Kathakali as ‘puppetry in human form’. Later, as an 18-year-old boy, he became an art director for actor-filmmaker Utpal Dutt’s Kallol. 
 
He also experimented with costume design. 
 
And then, when the Russian puppetry legend Sergei Obratzov visited Kolkata in 1962, Dutta managed to gain an audience with him and got his nod for an year’s training in puppetry with him in Moscow. 

After a year spent in soaking up Western puppetry traditions, he decided to return home, though he did get offers to work in Moscow. 

On returning from Moscow, his Kathakali guru Balakrishna Menon introduced him to Children’s Little Theatre, and Dutta was formally inducted into puppetry.

Niche theatre

It was in 1973 that Dutta established the iconic Calcutta Puppet Theatre, famous for its productions based on stories from the Ramayana, Aladdin and Vivekananda, which earned him great acclaim from within and outside the country. 
 
For instance, Aladdin has been staged by the Calcutta Puppet Theatre for over 3,000 times, so far. 
 
It was also declared as ‘one of the best in the world’ at the Bielskobiala Puppet Festival (1980), in Poland.
 
Meanwhile, in one of his spectacular productions on the Ramayana, Dutta got on stage 40 monkey puppets to dance. 

And then, there are his puppetry productions geared to take on children’s education, building moral values and nation-building, which have won him great applause from educationists.
 
In another sense, over the decades, Calcutta Puppet Theatre has contributed greatly in taking this ancient art into the 21st century through its modern approach to puppetry. 

This includes establishing a one-of-its-kind puppetry school that teaches students all aspects of the art form, from its narrative elements like storytelling to practical aspects like puppet making, stage setting, sound and lighting design. 

“The Calcutta Puppet Theatre would not have been possible without the help of my wife Devi, theatre artistes like Shyamanand Jalan, Pratap Chandra, Tapas Sen, Nihar Ranjan Roy, Nepal Nag and Khaled Chowdhury,” he acknowledges with humility.

A puppet story
 
Now, Dutta is busy writing a book on puppetry and its history. 
 
He is also lobbying with the West Bengal Government to establish a puppet village that would train people in not just puppetry, but also traditional handicrafts. 
 
This project needs sponsors, but Dutta feels committed to the idea. 

“More than any other country or civilisation, we Indians have a fantastic legacy in puppetry that is spread across rod puppetry, string puppetry, glove puppetry, shadow puppetry and even water puppetry,” he enthuses. 
 
Water puppets? “Yes, it is a very dramatic puppetry and the puppets are manipulated underwater. Even today, most Santhal villages in West Bengal keep this tradition alive,” he says.

What kept puppetry alive in India was its intertwining with festivities and traditions, Dutta reckons. 
 
Puppetry might still be alive in rural India, but it remains a dying art in urban India, and this is something that hugely worries him. 
 
“It is a pity, because there is magic in puppets,” Dutta voices, “The poetry in puppetry educates; the craftwork in making puppets is an aesthetical exercise that may be undertaken even by those among us, not so artistically gifted, and yet achieve the fulfillment that art bestows; the teamwork in it keeps us united and socially bonded; children can be taught ethics and social niceties effectively by puppets, because puppets appeal to children like no other art. 
 
And finally, remember, puppets can entertain without resorting to opulence, and it gets your imagination all fired up.”

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