When all her sons have died in war, what revenge can a mother seek? In the Mahabharata, she screams out a curse at Krishna. “But why did Gandhari do that? The sons chose to go to war. When you go to war, you die, right?” asks Anurupa Roy, a Delhi-based puppeteer. Her latest production, Mahabharata, is based on retellings of the epic by a tribal hunting community from Karnataka’s Hassan and Mandya regions, called Sillakeyata.
The rehearsal room of Roy’s group, Katkatha, on the outskirts of Delhi, is scattered with bodies of people and puppets, awaiting their cues. On September 23 and 24, they will perform Mahabharata at Festival Mondial Des Theatres de Marionettes, Charleville-Mezeires, one of the world’s biggest showcases of the art form in the world. “There are 450 performances in 10 days, of which only 50 are selected to play on the stage. For us, this is a test and a huge deal,” she says.
Roy’s Mahabharata was staged at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav (2017), organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi. It won the Best Play and Best Director awards at the Mahindra Excellence of Theatre Awards earlier this year as well. It has since travelled to Zimbabwe and South Africa, and a tour of Poland is coming up.
In the play, five actors help essay 14 major protagonists, and audiences don’t always know if it’s a puppet or a person enacting a character, or both. There are a range of puppets, from shadow to full body to a red dupatta attached to a mask. As they glide on a stage bathed in shades of light and shadow, unsettling interpretations peep from under the surface.
The bearded puppet of Dronacharya is killed soon after whispering actors fill the stage with murmurs of Ashwatthama’s death. “Why does Dronacharya lay down his weapons and refuse to fight after hearing that his son was dead? Did he know Ashwatthama was chiranjeevi because he had the boon of immortality?” asks the narrator. The questions hang in the air, as they do in many Sillakeyata performances. “Was Dronacharya tired of the war? Does he think, ‘If the Pandavas can use Ashwatthama as a rumour, I can use him as an excuse’?,” says Roy.
Roy began playing with puppets when she was 10, when one of her parents bought a plain glove puppet to keep her occupied. She watched Dadi Pudumjee’s Circus Circus, and followed this up with Ranjana Pandey’s Neeli Pari.
The turning point for her came in school — Sardar Patel Vidyalaya had a puppet teacher, and Roy and a group of friends warmed up to the art form soon. They performed at birthday parties and when there was a free period for the smaller children in school. “We told really stupid stories, with a twist, such as Red Riding Hood as a blood-thirsty carnivore who went after the wolf,” she says. In Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, the hobby turned serious, and she and her friends decided to start a group. That’s how the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust was born in 1997- 98, says Roy.
“What we are trying to do is break the idea that puppet theatre is only for children. We are still working with children and we have children’s shows but a performance such as Mahabharata is not for children. This play is really dark,” she says.
The tradition of puppetry in India is a few thousand years old, and there are 17 major forms which are still active. But most variants of the art form from different states are limited to their geographies and haven’t made their impact beyond the local. Katkatha’s puppets respond to unfolding socio-political situations. A comment on gender politics took the form of Twelfth Night (2002) in which characters “cross dress, regress and transgress”. Anecdotes and allegories by Gulbadan Begum (2009; inspired by Gulbadan Begum, Humayun’s sister), explored the anxiety over migration across the world.
The topic of migration gets a forceful response from Roy. “Nobody in my group is from Delhi. My grandfather kept a house in Kolkata thinking he will go back after he moved to Delhi. He never went back. My father, I think, identifies as a Bengali but he is very Delhi. I don’t think of myself as a Kolkatan, I have no connection with the city. So, who was this migrant?” she asks.
In a pivotal scene from Mahabharata, Roy crouches under a vast sheet of cloth with a hole for her searching fingers. You see her hands grapple with the fabric until it touches a little head stuck on it. The fingers become frantic. Roy rises to her full height and the cloth, studded with bleeding heads, falls around her like a tent. These are Gandhari’s pickings after the war of Kurukshetra.
Among the cast is Gundu Raju, famous in Karnataka’s Hassan and Mandya regions as a hunter as well as a storyteller and puppeteer. His repertoire of ancient songs strings together the episodes of the play. “Hum junglee hai,” he says, “It was in the forests that the first Sillakeyata were born. They used to hunt. There was no cloth so they wore the skin and hide of animals.” The pieces of leather, placed in the sun, cast shadows of many shapes. “When a patriarch died, they used to craft a piece of leather in the shape of the father and tell his story. Over thousands of years, the stories included the Ramayana, Puranas and the Mahabharata. We tell every new generation, this is how it was,” he says.