Teaching students with puppets

Teaching students with puppets

Teaching students with puppets

Poverty and illiteracy can be terrifying for an adult. For a child they may be impossible to comprehend. Teenagers can easily search valuable information, which is not in their textbooks, in a novel way.

This is where the 70-year-old “string man” from Tamil Nadu steps in. M Srinivasan, a retired headmaster, hailing from Paramathivellor Namakkal district, still goes to about 600 schools a year not to teach but to perform puppet shows. The aim is to help wards understand the issue better.

Though the ancient art is dying due to neglect and easy availability of more sophisticated forms of entertainment, Srinivasan still attracts thousands of students. “Puppetry is a real challenge to the imagination of the individual and is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. Besides entertainment, puppetry serves as an applied art, conveying meaningful messages,” Srinivasan said.

His journey began 10 years ago, thanks to puppets. “Puppets provide a way of holding children’s attention and in a way helps in behaviour change,” he claims.

Srinivasan's journey starts at 7 am. He makes sure that he covers at least two schools a day. “Mostly, I prefer schools that are in remote areas,” Srinivasan said. “Prior to my visit, I will obtain permission from the school authorities. Till now no school head has declined permission,” he said.
The puppeteer not only makes colourful puppets that attract children but also works on the good script before the show. “Main goal is to sensitise the youngsters to issues such as poverty, illiteracy, superstition and child labour,” Srinivasan said.

Puppets have been found to be a very effective means of communication--particularly on subjects that deal with myths, taboos, ignorance and misunderstanding. Even for teaching “Thirukural” (couplets written by poet Thiruvalluvar), the former headmaster used puppets to give a narrative to make students understand.

“Fairy tales work well. The mood of the story can be dramatic or comic. However, it must be very visual and tactile. The play could even be based around a song. You do not always need a story. Your child may happily ad-lib and you can make up the text as you go along,” he said.

Schoolchildren are often attracted by puppets and interact strongly with them as they help  them to overcome shyness and stage fear. The interaction improves concentration and use of the imagination.  For Srinivasan, arranging the tent and playing catchy, popular folk songs are most important since they will attract a large number of students to the puppet show. “I use waste clothes to make puppets,” he said.

According to him, the string puppets have jointed body and limbs which allow movement. String puppets are made of wood, wire or cloth stuffed with cotton, rags or saw dust.

“Music and sound will add to the atmosphere of the presentation. You can make sound with all kinds of objects. Spoons and cups can all be used and are easy to find. Effective shakers can be made by filling plastic bottles with seeds, ridged surfaces on plastic bottles can produce scraped sounds. Large tins function as drums. The human voice is capable of humming, whistling, chanting as well as singing actual words,” he said as he talked  about the background of the puppet show.

Training to students
Apart from organising puppet show in schools, Srinivasan trains students on how to make puppets and use them. He said: “I have more than 200 students, who are getting training from me.”
He said: “for children their first puppet will always be super special. Students learn  quickly that what they see is not the same as what they can make with hands.” Much fun can be had through the imaginative use of decorative materials such as ribbons, clothes, sequins and other sparkling bits and pieces. “From 4 to even 20, Srinivasan is gradually impacting the lives of children,” Manivanan, who is helping Srinivasan, said.

On preparing wards for holding a puppet show, he said in the beginning they learn basic head and mouth movements, using strings in both hands, choreographed to pre-existing sound tracks of well-known folk songs. “Sometimes cinema songs can also played,” Manivanan said. Students, trained by the duo, discover their creativity and some have even become full-time puppeteers, Manivanan said.

Although people may say there are limited jobs and earnings in puppetry, Manivanan says: “It’s not about getting employment opportunities. It’s about what you do with it. I didn’t dream of starting this puppet training centre and helping the students. You create a team that will take risks and those groups will create jobs. It is very interesting to learn, especially in the evening. Of course, it is better than watching television,” K Radha a class nine student said. “Puppetry is one of the arts facing extinction. My effort is to breathe life into it by introducing it to school students,” Srinivasan said.

With regular support and more opportunities, this dying art can soon be revived. “Explore and try out with puppets with your future generation. It will be an adventure,” Srinivasan said.

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