In a small room at Rachana Sansad,Prabhadevi,students are carefully attaching long threads to different parts of dolls made out of plastic and foam. Their teacher,Meena Naik,watches as they try to animate the dolls by tugging at the free ends of the threads. The students are an odd mix there is a 20-something theatre actor,a college student,two housewives and a 60-year-old woman. After years of struggle,the countrys first puppetry course is finally in session.
About six years ago,Naik approached Mumbai University with an application to introduce a degree course in puppetry. The reaction was one shed heard many times before. People see puppets as toys that children play with. My application kept getting passed from one department to the next. It was most discouraging, she says. Finally,Dr Naresh Chandra,the Pro-Vice-Chancellor,saw potential in the idea and asked Naik to start the course at a certificate level to begin with. On August 1,the eight-month-long course was inaugurated.
Though the class has only five students,Naik is not disheartened. She believes that,in starting the course,she has won half the battle. Ive travelled across the world and seen how much puppetry has evolved in Germany,France,Russia and the Czech Republic. In India,there was no university offering a certified course in the subject, says the theatre artiste,a self-taught puppeteer for more than 25 years.
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The classes began with Naik teaching the students the basics of puppet making,and will eventually include different forms of puppetry rod,shadow,hand puppets and,of course,string puppets. The course also includes lessons in scriptwriting,voice modulation,projection,sets production,lights and music. Once the classes started,I realised how much there was to be taught, she says. It is like what Vijaya Mehta (a theatre person and actor) said at our inauguration,In puppetry,performers need to be doubly skilled. That skill lies in transferring the performance the dialogues,character and emotions through the manipulator to the puppet,and making a completely inanimate object come to life.
Goregaon resident Arundhati Rawool,35,was quick to apply because she wanted to engage people,especially kids,in learning about epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I thought people are growing wary of television and movies. Letting the puppets tell the story will probably get their attention, says Rawool.
With the course,Naik hopes to change the way people look at puppetry. There is increased interest in the performing arts and unconventional storytelling is being explored through puppets, she says. Naik has previously conducted puppet workshops for educational purposes as well as for therapy. She remembers a relief camp she was staying at after the Gujarat riots of 2002. The children were scared speechless. I gave them puppets to narrate a story of their choice. Their inhibitions were lowered on seeing the dolls,and they then narrated chilling accounts of what had happened to their families, she says.
At the end of the course,the students will be evaluated 30 marks for theory and 70 for practicals. While Naik states that no other city in India offers a course in puppetry,she mentions that experiments are being carried out in other parts of the country. Suresh Dutta has done great work in life-sized puppets in Bengal. Similarly,Raghunath Goswami has experimented with contemporary puppetry. There is also a lot of contribution from Andhra Pradesh,Rajasthan and Delhi, she says.