Editor’s Note: India has a rich history in theatre, but our knowledge about the work our contemporaries and older groups have and are doing, is often limited to the geographies we live in. Driven by a curiosity to know about the work being created across the country, over the next couple of months, we will publish interviews and stories with different theatre groups and personalities from around the country. You can read previous articles in this series here: Keval Arora, Shiva Pathak and Nimi Ravindran, Budhan Theatre’s Atish Indrekar, Jana Natya Manch’s Moloyshree Hashmi, and Adikshakti.
Anurupa Roy is often heralded as the pioneer reinventing Indian Puppetry. Her choreographed and deeply visual marionettes have danced through the cobblestoned streets of Paris, conversed with children in conflict-ridden zones in Kashmir and addressed many taboo topics such as AIDS. Her creations feature nuanced explorations of theme, form, and material through the varied spaces she’s journeyed into, and make for many interesting conversations about style, impact and reception. Her work has received several accolades including a National Award bestowed by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and an India Foundation for the Arts grant.
This tour de creative force is inspired by the breadth of puppetry traditions that have existed over the years across the Indian subcontinent and in Sweden and other parts of Europe, where she attended university to further her craft and explore different performance traditions. What I found most gripping during our conversation is the philosophical ideology underpinning her work.
“We’ve taken that wall away between the audience and the puppeteer,” Anurupa says, “When anyone in the audience watches a puppet, they are investing (with their imagination) life into the puppet. No matter how good a puppet is, it will never be alive. This very premise is the space of puppet theatre, this is the space within which puppetry operates, whether it is acknowledged by puppeteers and audiences or not. This is true even if the puppeteer is hidden away and it’s called “magic”, where it is visible and you show the relationship between a puppet and its puppeteer. This suspension of disbelief is openly acknowledged. The entire reception of what we do is based on this aspect of the contract. It gives us the licence to perform this very specific artform which functions/exists in this specific way.”
While her journey with puppetry and storytelling started when she was quite young, around six or seven years old, she reminisces, her involvement and depth of inquiry got stronger with every new play, exploration and performance. What drew her to storytelling was the possibility to connect with other people and create dialogue – not through fact or objective truth but through fiction and the emotional depth it evokes to truly make an impact. She has always been interested in creating and weaving other worlds and realities that aren’t the ones we currently reside within and so began the work of creating puppets, stories and subsequently worlds for them to inhabit.
Anurupa views puppetry as not “manipulating dolls with strings” but an amalgam of plastic and performing arts where sculptures, masks, figures, materials, found objects and narratives come together with music, movement, physicality and theatre, to create the theatre where humans and puppets are co-actors. On being asked about inspiration Anurupa shares, “The first thing that comes in is an idea, not even a story. Sometimes the material drives it, sometimes a visual. Sometimes, it is something one hears or sees or something that moves me. Sometimes it’s just a project that comes our way and the idea comes in with it. It’s many things that start the idea. Sometimes, the puppets are created and then a story emerges. At other times we have material and no puppets. There is no one thing that starts the story and becomes the inspiration. Many inspirations come together.”
In the process of making work
Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust was started as an association of like-minded puppeteers in 1998. The group was formed with the support of The Foundation for Responsibility of HH Dalai Lama in New Delhi. Katkatha is an amalgam of two Hindi words. Kat means wood and is derived from the word Katputli (puppetry). Katha means story. Together, the word means puppets and stories. Katkatha focuses on presenting visual narratives with objects and puppets.
The need for community and collaborative working, that would expand the styles of puppetry one could play with, resulted in the beginning of this association and brought together some of the finest creators and storytellers working within the field. This year, Katkatha celebrates 25 years of their contribution to the promotion, documentation and expansion of puppetry by collaborating across disciplines, integrating new techniques and taking Indian puppetry forms to a global audience – through festivals, workshops, professional training by organising their first international puppet film festival, in February 2023, called Puppetoscope with the support of the French Institute in New Delhi.
While discussing how their work develops, she elaborated, “Since I work in an ensemble, it doesn’t always begin with me. It can start with another member in the ensemble company – may be an incident that affects all of us, a prompt or thought someone proposes, and another member feels differently about it and that starts a discussion. We explore concepts and themes, of course, but a lot of dialogue and discussion develops around it. It’s never unidimensional or linear, and seldom a hardbound script.” She goes on to talk about their show Shakespeare’s 12th Night, “Even with 12th Night, we went on the floor and improvised – the whole script came about through the exploration, movement and discussion with the team.” They have performed pieces that have been inspired by real encounters such as The Girl In The Pink Frock and fictional pieces as well such as The Mahabharata, certain versions of the Ramayana and even a tale inspired by the life of Humayun’s sister, Anecdotes and Allegories by Gulbadan Begum.
The improvs usually begin with existing material – an idea, thought, or concept. Some half-constructed puppets are used, so they have some semblance of a form, but not a finished form yet. And so, while exploring, playing and discussing, the script emerges. The team also explores ideas of how one wants to present it to the audience. And that is a huge process, admits Anurupa – bringing in elements of movement, dance, music, and light. All of this begins quite early in their performances because choreography is crucial in the kind of work that they do.
“A lot of dramaturgic work goes on at this point.” shares Anurupa. “I always draw a storyboard, which is very critical for me and my process. Personally, it has helped bring everybody on to the same page and understand where the script is visually not making sense or what needs to be brought into the visual narrative.”
The Puppetry of Frivolity
In an era where puppetry is relegated to child’s play, a mere age-old traditional form of entertainment, a frivolous art form that doesn’t deserve serious enough consideration, Anurupa has had to insist on the seriousness of puppetry, “It’s not about whether the puppets are serious or not serious. It’s the perception of puppetry and the puppeteers themselves,” she explains, “It is them accepting that, essentially, they are presenting dead material on stage for a very specific purpose, which traditional puppeteers know. They know already that the act of presenting a puppet on stage is a very specific theatrical, ritualistic act. It is a metaphor of life, which in itself is a very profound thing. It’s a serious thing.”
She also shares her thoughts on the arts functioning beyond entertainment – its uses with respect to psychological, social and political intervention, and advocacy. This is also reflected in her work of using puppets for psycho-social interventions in conflict areas like Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Manipur, as well as juvenile remand homes. She has worked with youth and women across the country and used puppets to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and conducted gender sensitivity workshops. “It’s not a frivolous thing, or it could be as well,” Anurupa adds. “The fact is that puppetry has always been presented in the frivolous spectrum, but there’s a possibility of a far more philosophical discourse, of the immersive spectrum. All I have done is included that spectrum, very consciously, because it always felt to me like those were excluded when puppetry was presented. Those aspects were never highlighted or addressed clearly. So in that way, all the layers of puppetry are presented for the audience to pick and choose from.”
The Philosophy of Puppetry
The premise of puppet theatre stems from the philosophy of a puppet. For this, it is pertinent to define: what is a puppet? This definition takes shape by contrasting it with the alternative and asking a much more critical question: how is a puppet different from a living human body on stage? And the answer is quite clear: the puppet is dead material. Plastic, string, fabric, or styrofoam, it is lifeless, static, vacant, and dead. If it is dead material, then why are people watching it with interest? How is the interest generated and engagement sustained? One answer Anurupa proposes is that the very act of placing a puppet on a stage and highlighting it in a black box of the frame is to talk about the metaphor of life. “We’re already making a contract – the puppeteer and the audience – that we are going to talk about metaphors, that what we are presenting is not real. This supposed space for projected aliveness is what enables the puppets to travel anywhere, to any place – to a conflict zone, for example, and specifically to places where it is difficult to say things directly but it’s possible to say things metaphorically.”
Perhaps this is why her shows have resonated with audiences across Europe, Japan and South Asia. One can clearly see these ideas come alive in the Puppetry For Healing project she conducted in the village of Beejbehara in Kashmir. The project entailed trauma therapy workshops spread over a few months using puppets, mask and theatre exercises, and storytelling. It aimed to reclaim folklore and oral tradition relating to the syncretic culture of Kashmir with the young women of Beejbehara. The stories collected from Kashmiri women from varied backgrounds and the folklore collected from the Beejbehara were then woven into a performance titled The Kashmir Project‘ which brings back Lal Ded, the Sufi poetess from the 14th century, to journey once again through Kashmir as a witness to the present day conflict and be a symbol of possible healing.
“They may not like our work. It might make them uncomfortable,” declares Anurupa. “They might choose to stay with the frivolous aspects of puppetry, but at least there should be choices; this is the premise I always begin with.” She ends the conversation with the determination of someone rallying against the extinction of this medium in the age of the internet, fusing the form with newer meanings and relevance, and reaching audiences far and wide.