Just like the traditional stories that our grandparents used to tell us, even puppet shows are losing their relevance in a time when alternative forms of entertainment are ruling the roost. With newer forms of entertainment, puppetry took a back-seat in the past few decades. This change is partly due to a drop in patronage to the art. Lack of awareness and involvement has also led to its decreased popularity.
Preserving a tradition
However, this has been changing in the past few years. In this light, a few initiatives have embarked on a mission to make puppetry come alive in the modern world. One such venture is PuppeTree, a Bengaluru-based puppetry company founded by Anvitha Prakash. She is supported by Anup Simha, Sharada Murthy and Sindhu Bhaskaram. There are several reasons as to why Anvitha, a former TV producer, decided to start PuppeTree. One of the main reasons is because she felt that many were not aware of the rich legacy of puppetry the State had, particularly the children of today. This, she realised was because there were not too many places that showcased live puppet shows in Bengaluru and other cities of the State.
With a family that is into the field of puppetry, it isn’t surprising that Anvitha chose to perform the art. “My grandfather was a well-known puppeteer in the 1970s and 1980s, and so was my father. As I wanted to continue the legacy of puppetry that my grandfather had left behind, I started PuppeTree,” reveals Anvitha. Her grandfather, A S Murthy, had been initiated into the puppetry world through his father. He later went on to found Puppet Land, a puppet show company, and travelled across Karnataka to stage puppet shows. His shows were hugely popular and even led to a TV show called Jigi Jigi Boombeyaata on Doordarshan.
Anvitha’s father, A M Prakash, used to help his father, Murthy, conduct his shows and he also made the puppets for the shows. “My father started Puppet Land in the late 1970s as a way to take puppetry to a wider audience. He was known for experimenting with the story’s content and use of puppets. In fact, due to this, he was also able to work with acclaimed writers to put up puppet shows,” says Prakash. “My grandfather’s plays focused on issues of his time. He also improvised his stories based on the reactions he got from the audience,” adds Anvitha. Prakash has noticed several changes in puppetry since he first started in the 1980s. While some changes have been for the positive, some have not been kind.
Noticing the changes, Anvitha put to practice her puppetry knowledge that she had gleaned to preserve the art. She chose marionettes for her shows. While marionettes may look simple to handle compared to other types of puppets — which include glove, rod and shadow — it is in fact complex to use because controlling is difficult as each puppet has around 12 strings. “As each body part has at least two to three strings involved, you need to know which ones to pull at what time to make an action such as dancing work,” says Anvitha. “Additionally, they are huge and heavy as each puppet we make are around two to three feet in height and weigh around three to four kg.”
What makes PuppeTree’s marionettes stand out is the fact that each of them is handmade and customised for the story they are presenting. Each marionette takes around a month to make, right from the initial sketches to the final product. With the help of her father, Anvitha works on the puppet’s look through sketches. Once the sketch is finalised, it is built with the help of Prakash’s student from a college he heads. As they have just started making the puppets this year, everything is done through trial and error. Even the materials they use are varied and these range from wood to scrap materials.
As they are constantly experimenting, PuppeTree’s work is somewhat similar to that of Anvitha’s grandfather’s. This is amply seen in the way the kind of stories they tell. Unlike traditional puppetry where the stories are taken from the epics and mythology, PuppeTree bases its stories on contemporary issues like water scarcity. “The responses to our shows have been overwhelming. As this is something new, the audience’s curiosity is piqued,” says Sharada Murthy.
For many, seeing a puppet show after many years brings back fond memories. The contemporary setting is augmented with the use of relatable characters, a key difference between PuppeTree’s show and that of traditional puppetry. The characters are realistic and talk about issues that affect everyone such as gadget addiction.
Furthermore, as the story is told through music, people of all ages can understand the story easily. “Puppetry, as a result, can be used as a way to imitate human life impartially and communicate the story quite easily,” avers Anupama Hoskere, director, Dhaatu Puppet Theatre.
While it does need to stay rooted in tradition, it can only progress ahead when it adapts with the changing times. It is of little wonder then that puppetry is changing to suit the time it is in. With PuppeTree’s passion and commitment to preserve puppetry in modern times, their aim of bringing people together to bond and have fun will be achieved in no time at all.