Song of Surrender

Friday, 29 July 2016

Delightful shadow play with puppets

By Sukanya Sankar

They were moving to the beat of the music and lip-syncing the song. No they were not dancers, but puppeteers at play. It was a delight to watch Kalaimamani S. Seetha Lakshmi and her group (all family members) narrating a segment from the Kamba Ramayanam, through the traditional Thol Bommalattam (Shadow Puppetry). The show was a joint effort of the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram and Sri Krishna Gana Sabha as part of the Yagnaraman Fest 2016.

The advent of television and Ipads has usurped a majority of the audience from this art. But, it was a pleasure to see a packed hall brimming with 7 to 14 year-old children, constantly cheering and applauding scenes when Rama attacked Soorpanakha, and Jatayu fought with Ravana, to name a few.

Seetha Lakshmi evinced keen interest in dance and puppetry even as a child. Born in 1946, in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, she started her career when she was eight. She accompanied her mentor and maternal uncle, Acharya M.V. Ramamurthy and his troupe to Chennai and performed at the Island Grounds. Among the audience, were Mrs. Y.G. Parthasarathy and Sanskrit scholar Dr. V. Raghavan. They were so impressed by the performance that they requested us to stay back in Chennai. “I am eternally grateful to Mrs.YGP for arranging many shows for us in majority of the schools and colleges in Chennai”, says Seetha Lakshmi.

Her next break came through Dr. Y. Nayuduamma, a well known leather technologist from CLRI, Chennai. He created a special division in CLRI, where Seetha Lakshmi could train students and other technicians in making leather puppets. “This was a big break for us. We also received an invitation to participate in the International Puppet Festival, one of the major festivals in the 1960s. Nayuduamma made sure that we participated in all these festivals as official representatives of the Indian Government through CLRI. Then on, there was no looking back for us, we have visited more than 60 countries till now. France is our favourite destination, and audiences there love the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”, says Seetha Lakshmi.

Although she started performing with a live orchestra, Seetha Lakshmi says that it is easier to travel to international destinations with recorded music. “This is something we learnt by watching puppet shows from other countries. Adherence to time, script and English narration, were some of the other changes we have adapted to.” Talking about  some of the transformations this art has undergone, she says, “Initially we used to customise the leather according to the characters. A demon in the story would be made of buffalo skin, while a sacred character would be made with deer skin. But now because of the regulations, we only use goat skin. We buy the leather and as a family we sit together, punch, colour and get the puppets ready in a matter of a few days”.

Seetha Lakshmi has worked with glow puppets, string puppets and rod puppets, but at the end of the day, shadow puppetry is closest to her heart. Her face lights up as she talks about her favourite puppet – the dancer. "My favorite puppet is the lady dancer in all my productions. I can make her swirl and dance to my tunes”, smiles Seetha Lakshmi. Among her memorable  performances are the Molla Ramayanamu which combined live Kuchipudi dancers and puppets. Another is the famous One-Man puppet show in Prague, where she single-handedly staged excerpts from the Ramayana.

Behind the shadow play....
When I asked them how they rehearse for such shows, Srini Vasu, her nephew laughed and said, “I have been in this field from the age five and we have not rehearsed a single show. Once we get the script and the music is ready, we are good to go”. Srini Vasu is also a successful executive at HCL, Chennai. As he says, “This is our passion but unfortunately it cannot be our livelihood, as the income is not directly proportional to the production costs”. Srini Vasu, his wife Bharani, daughters Priyanka and Madhumikha (who are also engineering students) are all involved in this art form and they say that their respective establishments readily grant them leave of absence whenever they have a show.

“It is a true labour of love,” says Seetha Lakshmi. “Although, we do get some recognition from the Government, they often come with restrictions. Art forms cannot really thrive with too many restrictions”. The State Government had set up a scheme, through which Seetha Lakshmi has trained many youngsters and school children. She has won many accolades both in India and abroad. The Kalaimamani and the Poompuhar award from the Government of Tamil Nadu, Kala Saraswathi from the Government of Andhra Pradesh are some of them.

“We are doing our best to keep this art alive. It has become extremely unaffordable to come up with new productions without grants or sponsorship, but I will continue to give my best," concludes Seetha Lakshmi. <>

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