Tuesday, May 25, 2010


"Indians are adopting western culture while westerners are learning Indian culture,” says M.R. Ranganatha Rao, master puppeteer and Founder-Director of Rangaputhali Puppet Group, Bangalore.

Man making images of himself is as old as history of civilisation itself. What began as part of shamanistic practices soon became an art form to be performed for the entertainment of villagers. Puppetry has been and is still being performed in various parts of India. In Karnataka, it is known an 'Bombe-aata' or 'play of dolls.' It is supposed to be based on popular folk musical drama, Yakshagana. Tales from the epics form the basis of the story lines in any puppet show. There was a time in the not too distant past when puppet shows were regular part of religious festivals and wedding celebrations.

Puppet shows would be held in make-shift theatres, the lighting dim and flickering and throwing shadows on the screen behind and the colours of the puppets bright and beautiful. But this art form is dying out due to the ingress of various other forms of entertainment, like the animated cartoons etc. While in some parts of the Europe including Britain, puppetry is nurtured by the local governments, it is not so in India where this art form is left to fend for itself.

To know more about this dying art, SOM contacted M.R. Ranganatha Rao, the master puppeteer, who is in city to give a puppet show at BVB. He shares his experiences thus:

"Generally, puppeteers with a family tradition practice this art. The elder members of the family train their children in the skills of making and manipulating the puppets. There is no need of formal education for these puppeteers. They just need to memorise the dialogues. To save this diminishing art, I have taught this art not only for my family members but for other students too, which has led many to choose this profession," says Ranganatha Rao who has taught thousands of students and is constantly innovating.

"There are mainly four types of puppets available in India — string, rod, glove and shadow puppets — which are still practiced in many parts of the country. But, these puppet shows are organised only as part of any festival, religious celebrations, ritual or marriages." Manipulating the rod puppets is most difficult as the puppet is about 3 feet tall and weighs around 10 kgs and the puppeteer has to use the iron rods to make puppets move. Ranganatha Rao has taken it upon himself to develop rod puppetry.

Training children has been the passion of Ranganatha Rao and his wife, Gayathri Rao. They have trained thousands of artisans by forming 5 to 6 teams and training them in puppet making, script writing, music and costume designing. In the coming days Rao dreams of showcasing ‘Gokul Nirgamana’ (Putina story) for which the dolls are ready.

He has also scripted many episodes complete with dialogues, script writing, costume and songs. They include Sri Krishna Parijata, Narakasura Vadha, Girija Kalyana, Krishna Tulabhara, Hanumadvilasa, Nala Damayanti, Shurpanaka Prasanga, Rajasuya yaga.

Like characters from Yakshagana, each puppet is made to resemble a particular character through facial features, ornamentation and colouring which is done using vegetable dyes. The long slender iron rods attached to limbs are used to make the puppets, move, wave their hands and leap and jump with abandon. The size, colours and stylisation varies from region to region.

Themes from the epics form the storyline, the music is simple like twanging a rubber band tied between two strips of bamboos. The show begins with an invocation. Then the Sutradhar or Narrator takes over. He stands directly behind the puppets on the stage keeping the wings free for the movement of the puppets.

It is not as simple as it sounds for a puppeteer is the narrator, manipulates the puppet, lend his/her voice to the various characters and produce sound effects. A good puppeteer must be knowledge of epic poetry, history, religion and philosophy. Puppeteers also need to be able to speak several dialect.

Then the lights go on, not the glow from the proscenium, but shadows of light, the puppets come awake and the Sutradhar begins the tale, and the audience take to a different world.
Meet Ranganatha Rao, the Master Puppeteer

Ranganatha Rao (77) is a pioneer traditional puppeteer who has adapted modern themes and techniques. Born on May 10, 193,1 in Magadi (Bangalore), he had his early schooling in Magadi and received training in puppetry from his grandfather Narasingha Rao a professional puppeteer. He later shifted to Bangalore and finished his graduation in theatre and was appointed as a Government school teacher.

Rao devised special puppetry kits to be used as visual teaching aids in schools. In 1983 he took voluntary retirement to devote all his time and energy for this art. His wife, Gayatri, assists him and their three sons chips in.

Rao has toured the country giving lectures and performing with his puppets. In recognition of his contribution to resurrect this art the Central Sangeeth Natak Academy honored him with the national award in 1981. Rao has attended a number of puppet festivals at the national and international levels. Rao is also a Founder Director of Rangaputhali Puppeteers in Bangalore.

Rao and his team were selected to attend various puppet festivals in Japan, California (US), Switzerland, Poland and Austria. At the national level he has participated in the puppet festivals at New Delhi and Hyderabad. He was appointed the director for the children’s puppet festival during the SAARC festival at Bangalore. He was also the director for the National Puppet Festival, Puthali’ 91 in 1991 in Bangalore. He has worked for Janapada loka, Karnataka and has set up a multi purpose puppet theatre there.
His puppets hold prominent places in museums like the - Victoria Albert Museum in UK, Swiss Puppet Museum of Fritbourg, Japan Puppet museum, China Puppet Museum and many others.


“We feel very proud, as we have learnt this dying art. When we join for this school we don’t know anything about this art, now we write scripts, narrate puppets, and design them. Till today all over Karnataka we have given 175 shows, it is very much exciting to us to go to others cities and show our indigenous art for them. We would like to continue this art as our profession,” says students of SVES.

They pull the strings: The students of SVES (standing from left) Tilak, V. Avinash, S. Nagaraj, Jayashree, V. Anusha, D. Shobha, Pooja, Ravi Kiran, S. Kumar, Narasimhamurthy (95% in SSLC) are seen with (sitting from left) Team Leader Raghavendra; School Head Master and Tabla player H.V. Shankar; Secretary B.S. Subramanya, Master Puppeteer M.R. Ranganatha Rao, Harmonium player Guru Murthy and costume designer Shobha Praneesh.

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