Naga traditions inspire puppetry

Aao aao hathi ki hum katha sunaye,” sang a group of children, clapping their hands as they lyrically introduced the story of the elephant’s eye.

A simple Naga story, speaking about the demerits of arrogance, is one of the oldest folk stories from Nagaland.

Another group wowed the audience with their swift movements as they manoeuvred the shadow puppets behind the screen.

It was the culmination of IGNCA’s summer puppet camp that explored shadow puppetry inspired from Nagaland.

A wall on one end was embellished with black and white rod puppets designed by students from the workshop. Jimmy Chishi, a Lalit Kala Akademi scholar and sculptor, was one of the mentors directing the students for their final performance.

“I am primarily a visual artist, a sculptor; puppetry is just an extension of my art form from the last four years since I received a fellowship in puppetry from the Ministry of Culture.”

The IGNCA schedule marked it as an event that would introduce students to the shadow puppetry traditions from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Orissa, China and Indonesia and will also explore the experimental Naga puppetry featuring the Tsungteptsu Naga painting style and Naga folklore.

As the students took a short break in the middle of the performance, Metrolife spoke to Jimmy about the nitty-gritty of Naga puppetry.

“My study is limited to Ao tribe from Nagaland. They have an ancient tradition of painting on shawl, called, Tsunteptsu. Tsung is the name of a tree and Teptsu means painting.”

The scholar explained, “In this style of painting, the artists dwell on the folk stories of migration and origin of Ao tribe. This shawl was earlier only presented to warriors, as a symbol of their bravery, but the irony is now everybody wears this head-hunter’s shawl, because the idea of merit has changed over the years.”

Students ushered inside to rehearse for their round of plays, performed two short stories from Naga culture: The elephant’s eye and the story of three brothers.

Speaking about shadow puppetry, Jimmy says, “There’s a rich tradition of storytelling in Nagaland but no puppetry.

The idea was to represent our strong, visual-based stories through the element of experimental and contemporary puppetry in this exhibition,” as he shows the slant lines, triangular patterns and other such motifs from Tsunteptsu over his black and white shadow puppets.

While Ashok Malik, one of the students of Bal Bhawan, scans the wall of puppets on one end to find his own masterpiece.

The other three mentors, Moumita Ghosh, an artist from Santiniketan; Nirakar Chowdhary from Odisha, and Reuban Angkhang, a sculptor from Manipur, brought in a dash of their own culture to the puppetry workshop.

Says Jimmy. “Our shadow puppets are usually ritual-based, drawing from elements in Mahabharata and Ramay­ana. But seeing the artists from Andhra Pradesh, breaking frontiers by incorporating contemporary stories in Tolu Bommalatta, gave us encouragement to employ Naga paintings as a form in our puppets.” 

Strongly endorsing the use of puppetry for education, Jimmy summed up, “Shakespeare or Shelley’s poems, however complex they be, a child will remember them well if he learns to do puppetry around the same!”

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