Published in The Hindu today.
“I am fascinated by the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet,” says Anurupa Roy, founder of Kat Katha and director of About Ram, a new media theatre presentation that had the audience spellbound when it played recently as part of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) New Performance Festival. Produced by Kat Katha in collaboration with Vishal Dar, About Ram germinated three years ago when Roy watched a Balinese Ramayan. “Watching the Balinese version made me realise that the story changes as it travels,” she explains. “As it travels, it takes on different nuances. I started studying different versions of the Ramayana and came across Bhavabhuti’s Ramayana, which looks at it as the ultimate, tragic love story. It revolves around the theme of universal loneliness—that each human being is ultimately alone. So when Ram chooses kingdom over Sita, the last lines of the poem say ‘he ruled for ten thousand years—alone’.”
It is this palpable sense of loneliness that Roy and her troupe managed to convey very effectively in About Ram. The central character of Ram, played by a two-and-a-half feet puppet made of styrofoam, thermocol, wood and paper mache, assumed a distinctive personality, a remarkable humanness. The credit goes to the puppeteers who pulled his strings. The style of puppetry in the show is an adapted version of Bunraku, the traditional puppet theatre of Japan, in which the puppet is manipulated by three different puppeteers and—unlike in many traditional forms—they are not hidden away but an integral part of the performance. “Having three puppeteers increases the possibilities,” Roy says. “You can move that many more limbs. The puppeteers also supply a lot of the emotion because they have a rapport with the Ram puppet. They are actually acting on stage, not overtly, but for example when Ram is remembering something sad, they look sad as well.”
About Ram is based on the Uttararamacharita by Bhavabhuti and deals with Ram’s later life. For the show, Roy and Dar decided to focus on the inner workings of Ram’s mind. This would have proved challenging for any art form; for puppetry, even more so because as Roy points out, “there are no facial expressions.” The directors relied on a skilful combination of animation, dance and music to add layered meaning to the show. For example, the fight sequence between Hanuman (Ram’s alter ego in this interpretation) and Ravana is played out between the puppet and a masked puppeteer through a Kathakali dance sequence. In the final battle between Ram and Ravana, the action transitions from the puppet to one of the puppeteers and is heavily influenced by the Chau dance form of Seraikella. The transitions are smooth and dance adds vigor and a larger-than-life quality to these scenes. Choreography—for the puppets as well as the humans—is clearly important to the show, and closely linked to this is the music. It took the troupe one and half years to produce the show, six months of which were devoted just to getting the moves and music right.
About Ram is also the first show in which Kat Katha used animation. Roy is emphatic about the close relationship between the two arts. “Puppetry and animation are first cousins because you give birth to something that does not live and that you have to breathe life into. Animators use a flat surface and we use three-dimensional objects. Not enough collaborative work is being done because not enough people know of each other. I think that’s a problem with the performing arts in general. We all operate in our niches.”
Kat Katha was established in 1998 and since then, it has performed several shows with themes as disparate as Shakespearean comedy (Almost Twelfth Night), HIV/AIDS (Virus Ka Tamashaa) and Indian mythology (Durga, About Ram). “For the last five years, we have working in the area of community health, especially HIV,” Roy says. “As a puppet company, all our work is about addressing stereotype at some level. HIV brings an entire gamut of stereotypes to the fore. We’re trying to figure out how to give puppetry as a tool to a community that they can then use it for awareness creation.”
Asked about pet themes, she laughs: “I am just in love with the medium. Our work is very whimsical. We are working on a show entirely made of plastic; the idea was to explore this new material. But I like anything that shakes people up a little bit. We like to use content that is thought-provoking, that makes people go ‘maybe, things are not exactly what I thought they were’.”