Puppets that tug at heartstrings

Puppets that tug at heartstrings
Uppinakudru, a coastal hamlet, located in the picturesque surroundings of Kundapura taluk in Udupi district, has carved a name for itself in the cultural map of Karnataka for its achievement in the field of Yakshagana string puppetry. This art form, which takes inspiration from Yakshagana, the popular dance-drama of coastal Karnataka, was conceptualised in the village centuries ago and continues to enthrall audiences across the globe. Here, puppets replace humans as actors while plots, costume, orchestra and narration are similar to Yakshagana. The puppets, mostly made of wood, resemble Yakshagana performers. Puppeteer controls the puppets through strings. “In ancient times, artistes were not keen to perform certain roles.

Also, it was difficult to portray certain elements of the plot. For example, we can have a ten-headed puppet to depict the character of Ravana, which is not possible in Yakshagana. Situations like Hanuman crossing the ocean and, animal characters can be presented with more details, making it more effective,” says Bhaskar Kogga Kamath, the sixth-generation puppeteer of the Uppinakudru family, which has been popularising the art for the past 350 years.

The tradition
Three brothers — Laxman Kamath, Narasimha Kamath and Manjappa Kamath — pioneered the depiction of Yakshagana plots through puppets. Later, Laxman Kamath’s grandson Devanna Padmanabha Kamath gave a new outlook to the art form and took it to greater heights.

The family was fortunate enough to get the support of art patrons like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, K S Upadhyaya, Leela Upadhyaya, Sanjeeva Prabhu and K S Haridasa Bhat. The government recognised Devanna’s efforts and honoured him with a national award in 1966. Soon the fame spread, which in turn opened a window of opportunities across the country. His son Kogga Kamath continued the tradition and exhibited the art in international platforms too. It is said that in the early 1900s, about 30 Yakshagana string puppet troupes were active in the region. Over the years, most of them faded away into obscurity.

Bhaskar, son of Kogga Kamath, grew up listening to Yakshagana songs and watching the making of puppets. He had also observed the troupe’s struggle to cater to the needs of life and art. “It made me realise fame and financial gains need not go together,” he recalls. Bhaskar worked in a bank for a while after graduation, but his passion towards the art prevailed and soon he left the job and continued the family’s tradition.

“Artists should not depend on others for financial assistance. The society should recognise them and offer necessary support.” Bhaskar Kamath has stuck to this theory and fortunately, art patrons and enthusiasts have supported him, helping the troupe expand its activities. The experience and knowledge — from the creation of puppets to the staging of plays — that has been passed through generations has helped him successfully sail through difficulties.

Bhaskar and his troupe members make the wooden puppets using locally available raw materials. For instance, jute fibre is used to make hair, while casuarina seeds and thorns of jummana tree are used as ornaments. Even the wax is made locally, using a combination of jack wax and beeswax. Bhaskar has a wide variety of puppets in his collection, a part of which is inherited. Bhaskar also creates new-age puppets, like spiderman and Bharathanatya dancer. He has also put in efforts to document various aspects of Yakshagana puppetry, recording the family’s experiments and techniques. His book on Kogga Kamath also provides insights into the ups and downs of Yakshagana string puppetry.

The troupe, which has 15 members, adheres to the norms and standards of Yakshagana bayalata. “Some of the team members have more than four decades of professional experience. It is a pride to have them in the troupe. I can cut the team strength by half, if I opt for recorded music. But that would affect both art and the artistes,” says Bhaskar.

The troupe has been staging plays in national and international platforms. After every performance, it gives a demonstration of the tradition, string puppetry (also called marionette) and the making of puppets. The plots chosen are both mythological and contemporary (climate change, literacy awareness). “We try to balance entertainment and education; traditional and modern,” says Bhaskar. The troupe tries to adapt itself to changing times without compromising the aesthetics of Yakshagana puppetry. The troupe has experimented with different  types and sizes of puppets, three-dimensional stage and lighting. Along with Kannada, it also performs in Konkani, Hindi and English. In collaboration with Infosys Foundation, it has toured the State with performances in every district.

Strengthening roots
Even as the troupe is reaching distant cultures and societies, Bhaskar has ensured that the roots grow deep in its native. With support from donors like Sudha Murthy and Dayananda Pai, he has established a Yakshagana Gombeyata Academy in Uppinakudru with a state-of-art building called Gombe Mane. The academy organises cultural programmes every month, in which other folk performances are also staged along with Yakshagana and string puppetry. The academy conducts daily classes and short-term courses.  

“I have been following the activities of the troupe for the past several decades. They had a very humble beginning, and in fact, Kogga Kamath worked in a factory to earn his living. The family’s passion and dedication towards Yakshagana string puppetry was recognised by Kamala Chattopadhyaya, who pioneered the revival of art and handicraft in Independent India. This helped them in many ways. Bhaskar has been continuing the tradition and has given the art a contemporary touch. It is essential for the survival of the art form. The puppets are attractive and the programmes systematic,” says Narasimha Murthy, a retired professor.

Mahabaleshwara Shet, who is associated with the team since 1969, opines that times have changed and it is tough to get young, passionate artistes. While he appreciates Bhaskar’s initiatives, he is disheartened by government’s apathy towards folk forms. The troupe that infuses life into puppets is making all kinds of efforts to keep the art form alive.

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