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Master puppeteer

Bhaskar Kogga Kamath is keeping his ancestral occupation, puppetry, alive


HIS NAVE looks belie that gifted craftsman within. He is just a graduate if academic qualification is anything to go by. But the skills, partly native and partly honed are far superior to the best of the Western techniques. For puppet show is the art of skilled manipulation of unreal midgets attempting to replace the real full form in a story. And the young Bhaskar Kogga Kamath is the man behind the play-the creator, the sutradaar (organiser).

"I am not fluent in English,'' he apologises at the very outset. "Though I've done quite a number of shows across the globe, and wish to improve my communication skills, the puppet inventions and innovations is taking up most of my time.''

How does he manage in Europe since he's given shows in France, Holland and other places? "We were able to manage with translators,'' chips in Dr. Leela Upadhyaya, the more articulate, litterateur-producer and troupe leader of the Shri Ganesha Yakshagana Gombayata Mandali of Uppinakudru (coastal Karnataka). She admits that despite her own job as a principal of a college in Mangalore, she is determined to continue the work of her late husband K. S. Upadhayaya. "He encouraged Bhaskar's father and took this troupe abroad in 1978. Essentially folk in element, this puppet show was a whole night affair in the rural pockets of Karnataka where it was popular. He got it abridged to a one-and-half hour show without mutilating the thematic trend and the essence of the story. He took pains in translating it to other foreign tongues so that it would become more meaningful to an alien audience,'' she recounts. After the demise of her husband, the Kamath family sought her stewardship to steer them.

"But for her and her husband we would have been confined to our own rural Karnataka,'' says Bhaskar with great regard. He is the sixth generation puppeteer who has taken to his ancestral art like a fish to water. "It was like a walk on the razor's edge to take a lifetime decision to quit a desk job in a bank and immerse myself into this ancient art of my forefathers with heart and soul.

I know how shaky this profession is with no assured income all round the year. To top it, I have persuaded others to join me as a troupe of 15 and their livelihood is dependent on me. Whatever remuneration I get from big shows abroad I use it to improve and improvise my skilful puppets. Of course there is some financial aid from the central government but it is hardly sufficient to preserve the puppets, maintain them and create new ones. But I am not one to give up in desperation. Financial funding and art, especially folk art like ours, are coexistent. Hence, the eagerness to perform outside our State,'' he says. Bhaskar has no doubt taken one big leap but that is not everything if his native art has to survive and gain ground. His knowledge is astounding.

Bhaskar explains why puppetry came into existence when real Yakshagana was being staged all over rural Karnataka: "Between the 12 and 15 centuries, our Kannada epics expressed fear of envisaging gods and demons in human form. Since Yakshaganas stem from mythology, this fear got translated into enacting portions of devas and asuraas with the help of unreal figures fashioned out of cloth or wood. A character called sutradaar or the guide was introduced to avoid confusion between human actors and dummies. Later days saw the characters of gods and super humans being replaced by human actors with masks to create awe. Somewhere down the lane, puppets evolved." Bhaskar Kamath's is the only known family where ancestral puppetry is in existence today in the entire Karnataka. It is fundamental for the puppeteers to learn the rudiments of Yakshagana dance with implicit adherence to taala and laya (beat and rhythm) and song in the tara sthaayi (upper octave). Apart from this essential learning, Bhaskar improved his communication skills with the audience through the medium of the puppet during his junior research scholarship days. His own innovations lay in giving a three-dimensional effect to certain scenes, through downsizing the stage with the help of layers of curtains and lighting wherein a psychological effect is created upon the viewer. Most of Bhaskar Kamath's stage plays end with a lec-dem, which got popular during one of his Pakistani sojourns.

The techniques of puppetry are mind-boggling, especially in the Indian context, as this one. Each puppet (the size of one foot or less) has eleven joints, six strings and three main sticks to which the strings are suspended. The sutradaar or the puppeteer and his puppet have to synchronise to perfection. The sticks are revered in mythological terminology as Brahma (main stick) the controller, Vishnu (the ankle stick) the transporter and Shiva (hand stick) the pulse. In other words, the three sticks wielded by the puppeteer symbolise the shrusti, sthithi and laya aspects of creation. There is a way of expression through the puppet which is done in the Saptamamsha paddati (seven-fold framework) of which the body language (anga bhaasha) forms the vital element. Puppets speak through background song, gesticulations and movements of limbs. The puppet characters are cast in the three main gunaas - rajasic, tamasic and saatvic.

"Mythologicals are still popular with Indians and viewed as fantasy abroad. I tried my hand at education in yoga through a puppet dressed as a yoga trainer. Though some schools were encouraging on the whole, it remained a dead investment. I have now decided to strengthen my skills with what is on hand. For instance, I am now able to make puppets that can move eyes and mouth to mime, speech and expression. Puppets upkeep is not only a creative activity in itself but capital investment too," says Bhaskar about the absence of social themes in puppetry. Despite the compliments, Bhaskar holds a steady head above his slender shoulders when he expresses that he is way behind in a world where digital stage settings and effects rule the roost, while he manages with pieces of cloth and electric lights to camouflage the hands that manoeuvre the puppets in the most elementary fashion. But that is exactly what makes a Bhaskar Kamath puppet show unique and one of its kind.

RANEE KUMAR

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