How a rural art struggles to retain its identity
A stroll around the ‘Tamil Nadu’ section of 'Dakshinachitra' brings you to a board that reads ‘puppet show-1 pm.’ As you enter the small structure at the appointed time, you are met with a white curtain that acts as a screen, two old women with colourful dolls and three rows of empty chairs. And this despite a sizeable amount of tourists in the place.
Privatisation of televison has brought with it a revolution: television now reaches a sizeable population of the country( last recorded viewership is 416.51 million). However, comendable though the reach of television undoubtedly is, it is also responsible for declineof several tradional arts in India. Unable to cope with the speed of growth of television the country, several tradional art forms are either dead or are slowly dying. One such dying art is puppetry.
The word ‘puppet comes from the latin word ‘pupa’ which means a tiny or a dainty figure. Historical evidences show that Puppetry has been accorded a high place in the India. Srimad Bhagavat Gita, for instance, talks about how God, the greatest puppeter of all, manipulates the entire universe with the three strings- satta, rajas and Tamas.
The earliest mention of the art of puppetry was found in the Sangam text ‘Silappadigaram’ written around the 1 B.C. It was also mentioned in the ‘Natyashastra’, the ancient treatise on performing arts that talks of ‘sutradhar’ or the holder of strings. In fact, puppetry is so much a part of the tradition that it finds a mention in books like the ‘Natyashastra’, the ancient treatise on performing arts and even the Kamasutra.
However, in the age of entertainers such as ‘desperate housewives’and ‘How I met your mother’, this ancient art is now struggling to regain it’s lost identity.
As Mahipat Kavi, a legendary puppeter of Gujarat once said “in swarnim Gujarat, traditional puppetry has neither the state’s support nor the relevance as an entertainment for the masses that it was meant and proved to have”.
Before advent of the private television channels, puppetry became a mode of message dessimination. Although other modes of entertainments such as radio, and cinema were very effective, these were considered mere entertainers and therefore the task of spreading a message would lay with arts such a puppetry. In fact, many master puppeters such as Ramdas Padhye made regular appearances in Doordarshan in shows such as ‘Meri bhi suno’ and ‘Aap he sochiye’.
“Traditional indian performances have an elasticity in them where current problems can come in. so even in a potrayal of an epic, there were places in the story where even what is happening today can be brought in. This is why they are still around,” says V.R. Devika, an activist who works to encourage folk performers arts.
With ushering in of the private televison, the definition of entertainment began to change. In some parts of India, such as gujarat and rajasthan this meant commercialisation of puppetry; in states like Tamil Nadu, the art began to die a slow death.
In Gujarat and Rajasthan the art of puppetry was became a commdity to be sold in the ‘flourishing heritage market’ as an Article in the Economic and Political Weekly aptly puts it. Despite this, however, the artists remained poor.
“Puppeters are not beggars; they are artists and all they want is their rightful living with dignity. Isn’t that the responsibility of the state?” Kavi once asked.
On the other hand, the art of puppetry in states like Tamil Nadu began to disappear. Artists did not want to carry forward the lineage because of the dismal state of the art and the lack of income.
“Artists do not want their children to work in this field because of it’s poor pay. They want their children to go out to offices and work”, said Devika.” Earlier, these artists used to perform in temple festivals. These days, they screen movies instead,” she continued.
As the they are up against the formidable and gargantuan entertainment industry, these arts must now seek new methods to keep themselves alive.
“ These artists are up against the formidable entertainment industry. They must look to reinvent themselves to stay alive”, Devika concludes.