By Devki Pande
The bus stop has glass encased puppets lining the backrests. “Dhaatu” reads an overarching green signboard. It is a word of Sanskrit origin, meaning layer, root, mineral, element or stratum. Some parts of the glass has grey marks on it; like an advertisement that has been ripped off under duress, with its remnants scraped off with a knife. But the stop itself is clean, and although the leaves on the bushes are green, the piles under the seats glow copper. The house is just down the corner, two loops of road leading down to the end of a lane.
“Dhaatu puppet bustopaah?” The conductor had said, scribbling on my ticket when I tried to tell him that I needed to get down on K.R Road. “Studentaah?”
There are many levels inside the house. Each change is marked with a sticker; an interlocked infinity pattern on a strip of red. Like Aipan, except the feet are turned out and joined at the heel instead of being placed side by side. In Uttarakhand, Aipan is drawn into the threshold every morning; a dab of geru, and patterns of rice flour paste on it. In modern households, however, this practice has become obsolete, with people preferring stickers, or a pietra dura inlay into the floor, so that it is always present, simmering under the surface.
Anupama leads me over, through the wooden slabs of a double door, each panel broken into sections like a Cadbury bar, each section pierced with a golden knocker. It opens into an arena covered with blue slate. For a moment, there is a pungent, delicious smell mixed with musk in the air. It is the smell of puppets, which are in various stages of construction. The finished models are strung up to cover one entire wall. Anupama has made each piece by hand; from rod to ring to glove to Yakshagaana, and each puppet has its own set of wrought glass jewellery.
“Glass glints on the stage and looks like real jewels”, she says.
There is a sky blue coloured puppet for Krishna, an indigo blue one with dreadlocks and a moon for Shiva, even a splitting Jarasandha puppet, the halves held together with rope. She is preparing for the Navratris, when her organization exhibits through a series of narrative theatre performances. Dhaatu focuses on the revival and preservation of Indian art and culture; on delivering traditional Indian wisdom through puppets and stories, and these stories are like coconuts; chunks for those who want to hear adventures of heroes triumphing over demons, and sweet water for those who want something more. Which is why, rather than just expounding on philosophy, Anupama chooses epics, where each story is nestled into another like concentric circles; where there is neither beginning nor end. She has made over four hundred and fifty puppets so far. On the table, there is a nail hardened into a salmon coloured mixture, tins of Asian paint, completed models, and teakwood powder that is used as a finish. Panchalika lies in a corner; a blue doll that she made eighteen years ago, the doll that started her collection.
We come to a rectangular table, ochre under the filtered sun. A decapitated Durga head sits in the centre. She is blinking all three almond shaped eyes at me. “A work in progress.” Anupama says.Her name refers to an aspect of Shakti- unparalleled and incomparable. And she looks the part, red dupatta flung over a blue kurta, a black lightning bolt above her red bindi. Black lines traced on the skin under her eyes, and gold on either side of her head.
“The other year, termites gnawed through the puppets, and some of them are more than a hundred years old, “she says, referring to the head of Durga. “This one broke during a performance, so I started making another. It seemed right.” And so it is. In a few months, it will be Navratris; the time when the nine forms of the mother goddess are invoked. While she is sorting through her work table, she asks me if I have visited the Mysore Palace during the Mysore Dasara; an observance of the Navratris that began during the Vijayanagar period. I haven’t.
“Oh, you must.” She says. “They light it up with bulbs…it’s just incredible.” She picks up a lightweight log which has the beginnings of lines drawn on it, which will soon be reduced with hammer and chisel. “Shaalmali.” she says. Silk cottonwood. She tells me that in the Rigvedic times, when brides were bidden to their husband’s homes, the palanquin that bore them forth was made of this very wood. It is sacred to Shiva, apparently.
“Not to be confused with sea cotton wood. That’s Hibiscus tilliaceus. It’s used for wood carving, yes, but mostly rope and packaging.“ Her powerful arms hand me an example. It is a carved wooden mask not yet painted. Colour makes the difference between characters, she says; just an addition of green into a sky-blue makes a character Rama instead of Krishna.
This is because in India, representation is different from reality. Blue skin does not mean a blue hue but rather in-depth activity- seamless and boundless like the sky. Green indicates an affiliation to the environment, and Rama was born to protect Bhudevi; the earth goddess, from plunder. A ten-armed sculpture of a dancer does not mean ten literal arms; it is the flow from one posture to another that is being depicted. “My homework was done hundreds and thousands of years ago. “ Anupama says. “All that I have to do is production- which still takes me eighteen months at a minimum.”
So why does she do it then?
“Because I love it.” She says, breaking into a smile. “Puppetry brings engineering and dance together.“ She is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, and diverts for a moment to explain the difference between the Pandanallur and Melattur style of the abhinaya; understatement versus intricacy and characterisation.Although her dance teacher was a brilliant man, he was also a poor man, and through the lens of a child, she thought that dancing equated to poverty. She didn’t want to be poor, and she didn’t want to be destitute, and studied science, mathematics and computers in school. “Not to imply that I don’t like it.” She adds. But in her later life, choreography became an outlet. She began to teach dance to women in America. A space had opened up in her that she had thought engineering could fill, but it didn’t, not completely. As consequence, Dhaatu was born.
“Grammar is beautiful, “she says, “But when there is no soul, it is not enough. It is not art.” She has spoken about the rasa theory in art, where emotion is likened to tastes, and just like food, art can only touch the heart when these tastes are balanced. She describes rasa as emotion after the ego has been filtered out of it, like the juice collected after the pulp is amassed and separated. They showcase during Navratris because the Navratris celebrate the complete package; of outer beauty with inner beauty, of outer wealth with inner wealth, of outer power with inner power. When only Prag Jyotisha; external light is present, that is when the fire turns to Naraka.
“Did you know that puppetry was created to communicate the needs and values of society? It dates back to about three thousand years. “ “That’s quite old.” I say. “It’s ancient!” She exclaims. “It’s the ancestor of all film and television shows. The parent has been surpassed by the child.” She smiles humorously. “No one really watches puppet shows anymore; people prefer serials of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.”
For the second time I wonder why she engages with the art form.
“Because Dhaatu isn’t just blind puppetry.“ She explains. “We aim to represent issues that are relevant in society today; like divorce, or single motherhood. We choose the stories that we enact very carefully.” She is sitting on the stairs now, legs folded under her as she gives me examples, counting on her fingers, before giving up.
“Ten thousand people have lived and followed the same path as us,” she says. “We are never alone.” She tells me that we are not a museum culture and that the reason a museum is such an alien concept in India is because we are a living tradition; that tradition, when offered with reason and logic, is classical.
“This is the age of questioning and scepticism”, she says. “This is what makes the epics classic. They’re full of knowledge, full of fables, and what medium is more apt than puppetry? The past is still alive today – in a different garb and a different setting, and that is what is known as contemporary. Like your Aipan. It’s adapted, but the meaning hasn’t been lost. Like people, story forms, dance forms don’t die here; they mutate and branch out and survive. Pur iti navam,” she concludes; her bindi a fractal of the setting sun. That which is contemporary is new again and again. The root, the dhaatu remains the same. The leaves are the ones that change.
Devki Pande: Student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand, and is an avid marathon runner.