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Puppet problems

"The arrival of talkies posed a threat to their business and the advent of satellite television channels has dealt a major blow", say these puppeteers


WITH THE advent of talkies and satellite televisions, many traditional art forms had gone into history.

The art of puppetry is on the verge of extinction, as it is losing public patronage.

An art of sticks and threads (skin of animals in some forms), relying mainly on lights, puppetry is a contemporary of the art of drama.

"It had good response from the people till three decades ago. Today, only a few families in Madurai, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli, are practising this", says T. Jayaram Rao, a professional puppeteer for the past 30 years.

"In Madurai, there are about four families involved in this profession", he says.

While the male members take up the work of playing puppets and delivering dialogue, female members score background music and sing songs.

Their wards also accompany them and learn the art.

Speaking in a rustic Tamil, he says, "puppetry is our family profession and I learnt this art from my grandfather and father. Though I was born in Madurai, my ancestors were actually from a village in Andhra Pradesh. My first show was conducted when I was 10-year-old".

More than learning the art of playing with the sticks, one should have basic knowledge of colours and painting and a bit of voice manipulation, according to Mr. Jayaram Rao, who says, "the core requirements for our type of puppetry are bamboo sticks, goatskin, and bulbs of 200 watts or 500 watts. We buy the goatskin from the local market and treat it for a day. After it turns hard, the figures are drawn on it using ordinary colours".

Ramayanam, Nallathangal, Harishchandra and Mayil Ravanan, supply regular themes for their shows.

The puppeteers are engaged by the Government to popularise welfare schemes such as family planning, small savings, environmental issues, RWH, etc. among the ruralites.

Regarding payment, he says, "for government programmes, we are paid Rs.550 and for private we charge Rs.1000 or Rs.2000"

N. Durairaj Rao, who has been staging shows for the past 50 years, narrating the response from the people to this art in the olden days, says, "we used to go to villages in bullock carts and conduct shows, for 10 days, on Ramayanam. For this, we would be paid Rs.10 or Rs.15 depending on the affordability of the locals. Apart from this, the villagers would also give us food, groceries, clothes, etc., every day, till we leave their place. So, the entire amount paid to us for the show would be a savings."

"But, with the arrival of talkies, we started witnessing a slump in our business and the prospects turned from bad to worse after the advent of satellite television channels", Mr. Durairaj Rao laments.

"Now we are living in abject poverty, as there is no business at all. But for some programmes offered by the Song and Drama division of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, our survival would have been under threat", says Mr. Jayaram Rao.

But, once in a while luck smiles on these pitiable families. Mr. Jayaram Rao has now been invited to conduct a show at the Grand India Festival organised by the Central Government, to mark the Diwali celebrations, in France, which is to be held in October. A few years ago Mr. Jayaram Rao presented a show at New Delhi. Apart from this, he has performed in the Madurai Kamaraj University, two or three colleges and five schools in the city. Some NGOs and tour operators book these puppeteers to entertain their guests, who come from other countries to the city.

Mr. Jayaram Rao and Mr. Durairaj Rao have also received awards from leading personalities such as former President R.Venkatraman, the noted music exponent Balamuralikrishna and several former Collectors of Madurai district.

Mr. Jayaram Rao, who is keen to provide education to his children, expressed his inability to do so, as the Government refuses to issue them community certificates.

"Despite all these, I will bring my wards into this profession, which has given me an identity along with poverty", says Mr. Jayaram Rao with a dry smile.

While the puppeteers have expressed their commitment to continue the profession, now the onus is on the Government to preserve this art form.

To know more about these puppeteers write to Meenakshi Baai Leather Puppet Troups, 56, Indra Colony, Alagarkovil Road, Kathakkinaru PO, Kadachenandal, Madurai - 7 or dial 2422012 (PP)/2661765 (PP).

M.R.ARAVINDAN

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