ART 'N' CULTURE
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When their sleepy Puppets get an arena, poor families go festive in Badakodanda
"Chaitanya Behera runs a small vegetable shop in the outskirt of Bhanjanagar town, near the Badakodanda chowk. A right-turn and three kilometer’s cycling, takes him to his village where he owns his two generations old ‘Ma Jagat Janani Kandhei (Oriya word for puppet) Theatre” which becomes operational during festival times only. Unlike others, he is not desperate about the bleak future of this folk-art. His troupe has only recently performed at Gosani Nua Gan in Berhampur during the last nine days long Rathyatra festival."
Gurbir Singh : June 10, 2009
Try imagining a small village anywhere in India which alone housed more than a dozen puppet theatres all at one point of time, now or for that matter some time back in the past, maybe in good old times when cinema and satellite televisions had not had their enviable reach into the tradition loving, simple entertainment seeking rural households. Come to Badakodanda, less than five kilometers away from the Bhanjanagar subdivision of the Ganjam district in Orissa and you will not have to do any hard guessing. Now a big village of some eighteen hundred households, where not so long ago, in the 70 and 80s, with much less number of households then, more than two hundred households lived off their earnings from ‘puppetry show business’ alone. There was a dozen of dolls’theatres in this village alone, with four each in Buduli and Rajkundu, the two adjacent villages to Bhanjanagar in other directions.
Now how about calling the place ‘The Motherland of Puppetry’ in Orissa! Nothing can be truer than this, as puppetry theatre in Orissa, more particularly in the southern region of the state, had its origin in this village, and because it evidently had flourished here as a great art form. From here it spread to different parts of the state. But sadly, and understandably so, after these puppet theatres came of age, this novel art in wood is almost dead in the entire state. When tickets stopped selling, puppets had to lie low in the village warehouses. The theatres were shut down over time and the artists and other people associated with puppetry had to look for other means of livelihood. While those with some resources ran tea stalls, vegetable shops and pan-shops, other had to simply go for daily waging.
But the dolls and the theatrical infrastructure like musical instruments, tents, dresses, lights and sound systems still remain in the storehouses of the villagers whose ancestors once proudly owned them. Despite the depressing, dying time for them, the good news is that these puppets of yore are still alive in their respective storehouses, naked, without their beautiful royal and gorgeous attire on them, in the darkness of many big rusted tin boxes, waiting for the festival time to come. It is time when they again come back to life. Of course, to perform. Not depending on the number of tickets sold for respective shows, but on contract-basis to entertain the masses on the built-in stage for weeks at stretch.
he even better news is that the old masters have kept on giving away their beautiful artistic endowments to their succeeding generations and that the young ones are equally deft and talented in all branches of puppetry art like in handling them, in vocal renderings, musical accompaniment, and most importantly, in creative concepts. The best of all news is that now a days these contact shows which are held in the open at the festival spots for days together free of cost for viewers, fetch handsome amount for the troupes, apart from free food and free lodging at the far off places of performance.
The result- a happy smile and some money into the pockets of everyone associated with the troupe, which are nothing short of festival bonus for the poor people who otherwise eke out a very hard livelihood all year round in their respective professions.
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The amazing thing about these villagers is that there may be a great tabla maestro in a mason. A paan shop owner may join the troupe with his harmonium and have the spectators of the show go ga ga over his harmonious renderings. The vegetable shopkeeper may be a vocalist, remembering by rot some seventeen plays, able to recite any play of the spectator’s choosing without having to look at the age old scripts once. His assistant may turn into an excellent ventriloquist and his brothers may be very good at handling the strings of the dolls. One has to see to believe how art lives in the heart of rural folk of Ganjam.
Chaitanya Behera runs a small vegetable shop in the outskirt of Bhanjanagar town, near the Badakodanda chowk. A right-turn and three kilometer’s cycling, takes him to his village where he owns his two generations old ‘Ma Jagat Janani Kandhei (Oriya word for puppet) Theatre” which becomes operational during festival times only. Unlike others, he is not desperate about the bleak future of this folk-art. His troupe has only recently performed at Gosani Nua Gan in Berhampur during the last nine days long Rathyatra festival. The crowd was amazing, but there was a very encouraging, sizeable attendance by the children and the women folk. The approval and cheering they received there was gratifying, besides the free food and free stay with a contract that was worth rupees fifteen thousand. Was it more? His shy-smirks refuse to divulge his trade secret.
Back in 2004, this theatre group was invited and transported to Bhubaneswar by the O TV. They shot for them the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the many other series in their studio for telecast on television and were handsomely paid. A dolls’ fair was held in Berhampur on the 5th of July 2006. Dolls from different parts of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh on display were available for sale. Chatanya Behera’s troupe which had exhibited their beautiful wooden dolls and puppets had a very good time there. Innovative and creative as he is, he can write scripts befitting the interest of his clients and give his dolls the desired shapes. He has also done many awareness related shows for many reputed NGOs working in the region.
But not everyone appears to be as happy and hopeful as him. In front of his house, lives Sahadev Bisoyi, a septuagenarian puppeteer who runs a paan shop. He claims his puppet theatre to be the oldest one in the village. He was the master puppeteer and the chief vocalist in his troupe, the ‘Bir Bajarang Bali Kandhei Nacha Dala”. His three grown up sons, engaged in his shop and a job elsewhere are deft in handling puppet shows in one area or the other. Despite having done a few good programmes for a co-operative bank in Phulbani during the last district level exhibition there, the master’s son Ajay Bisoyi, who relieves his old father from the shop to join the discussion, draws a blank face as his puppets and dolls take it easy in the tin boxes in some dark corner of his house. He laments the hopelessness of the puppetry show business in recent times. He gets nostalgic while describing about the manpower in the times of urgent formation of his puppet troupe. It comprises of some fifteen people, each engaged elsewhere to support their family. But they join hands when an offer comes through their way.
One man at tabla, the other at a nagra as the third one shakes the Jhumka. The master would play the harmonium. His father as a vocalist would need someone as assistant - a string operator with two side operators, somebody to fix the tent and light, and someone to stand at the gate and cook for everyone. Thus the troupe is formed. He mourns, “See, how many families used to live off the puppets in our village.”
He is absolutely right. Puppetry is the only art form which involves many activities. From wood and carpentry to drawing and painting, from plaster cast making to clay modeling, from costume designing and preparation to stage management which includes a good sound and light system. More important of all, the story idea, writing and dramatization of scripts, song and musical composition, and an instant addition or adaptation on demand, finding viable market for the shows, need talents and manpower. And when the shows are successful, rural self-sustenance is the happy end result for all the people involved.
hese shows involving dolls, maybe in a different form, is believed to have originated in the India of the 5th century B.C. It is popularly performed in various forms in states like Rajasthan, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Assam and many other states. Like our diversity in many things, Indian puppet styles and techniques too differ. There are rod puppets, string puppets, glove puppets and shadow puppets. In the international sphere, the Chinese were said to have evolved the shadow puppetry. This beautiful art-form finds mentions even in Aristotle and Plato’s writings. In the middle ages, the Christian church used puppets to spread church doctrine. The Nativity, the story of the birth of Jesus, was the famous play at one point of time in the west.
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The puppets have seen ups and downs like what happens in the lives of mortal beings. While some elitist interest have been noticed among the extremely talented and educated puppeteers who have done a yeoman’s job in reviving this dead art in their respective states, Orissa is yet to see the same renaissance. Delhi has to its credit elite puppet groups like Aakar, Delhi Puppet Theatre, Dolls’ theatre, Mumbai has Kalsootree, and Kolkata has CPT (Calcutta Puppet Theatre) which had to its credit the famous play Aladdin which has had more than 3000 shows in 25 years. Its director, Suresh Datta, the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1987 for his contribution to Indian Puppetry is credited to have made his theatre work with a great sense of social responsibility, using the histrionics of dolls to educate people in national development programs. There are many more such path-breaking organizations in different parts of our country which have done puppetry great service.
But the Indian popular medium such as television too are bringing puppetry back to life and planting into the popular psyche a tremendous liking for the dolls’ histrionics. NDTV’s ‘Double Take’ in English and ‘Gustakhi Maaf” in Hindi take a brave dig at the prevailing socio-political scenario, which at times include popular cricket affairs too. Puppets resembling real leaders and players as characters both in looks and voice, ape their farcical mannerism making a few minutes’ show on television a hilarious, yet a great satirical experience. The classic thing about these shows is that they are extremely contemporary and well-researched. They make comments about the high and mighty in a way no one else can do. Besides, there are many interesting children’s programs through puppetry on television.
Everything said through puppets reach deeper into one’s mind, for puppetry is nothing but an extension of one’s self. The ordinary man, caught in the web of uncontrollability both in terms of socio-political and meta-physical sense, finds his helpless condition similar to those of the puppets with who he is in communication with during shows. No wonder the effect is many times cathartic. Hence puppetry is one of the safest ways to wonder out loud and release one’s inner, subdued feelings. The modern educated directors use puppetry to explain human conditions. Their plays sometimes also serve as critique of our helpless lives.
But back to Badakodanda where the puppeteers are not so qualified so as to be able to deal with sensitive issues; where the masses throng to watch shows only when the tickets are free, puppetry needs guidance and sponsorship of some concerned, capable organization. Sadly, in the proposed government supported programmes like “Revival and Revitalization of Folk Art and Culture for Sustainable livelihood in Orissa and Bengal” which is implemented by the Eastern Zonal Cultural Center, Kolkata and sponsored by Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, which intends to supports 4000 folk artists through 400 SHGs and aggressively promote and market the Revitalized artists and art forms through special SGSY projects, puppetry of Ganjam has found no place, while Sankha Badana, (blowing of conch), which is a unique presentation of rural music having music and dance in a combined form, Prahalad Natak, a mythological folk play, and Animal Mask Dance of Ganjam have been identified as dying folk arts.
It is high time an intervention was made before the puppets here finally breathed their last inside some dusty, rust-laden tin trunks in the store houses of this village of fabulous puppetry talents. However in the meanwhile, the good news is that the puppets rise from their death like slumbers during festivals and bring smiles on the faces of those who work on them. Occasionally, but thankfully, profusely though. It is about time someone created local equivalents of Punch and Judy of England in Ganjam and gave the local age old puppetry a real breath of life.
Author is the District Information and Public Relation Officer, Gajapati, Orissa