Pluralism and Performance: The Many Voices in Ramayana - Discussion on R. V. Ramani’s film “Nee Engey”

R.V. Ramani’s documentary film “Nee Engey” (Where are You) was shown, following which there was a discussion on the film.

In his introductory remarks, Ramani said that he as a filmmaker feels that the shadow puppetry is a predecessor to film. The cloth screen on which the shadows of leather puppets are reflected by keeping them and moving them behind the screen and lighting them with lamps lit and kept behind the screen, the movements of the puppets through the manipulation by the puppeteers give the impression of a film which is a reflection of images in screen through lighting. Moving images is the technique used both in shadow puppetry and film.

The theme from shadow puppetry is usually from the epic Ramayanam. The puppeteers belong to the families who have been doing this art form as a vocation. Traditionally the performances were done in Bhagavathy (Mother Goddess) temples as an offering to the deity. The story behind it is that while the Rama-Ravana battle was going on Bhagavathy was otherwise engaged, in killing of the demon, Darika. So, she wanted to see this performed as this involved the freeing of Sita who had been abducted and kept imprisoned by Ravana. The puppeteers themselves make the puppets , mainly from leather, especially deer skin or buffaloe skin.  Eventually the form stopped being confined to the temple premises and came into public space. It began to be shown as part of the festivals and village shows. Shadow puppetry has been performed even internationally as this art form exists in other countries such as Indonesia, Philippines etc.

The families who performed puppetry led nomadic lives. The art form was passed down from father to son and remained within the sphere of families. Now, with the dwindling of income from puppet shows and the shift in importance from folk arts to cinema, these puppeteers are forced to take up other jobs such as construction work, labour in the fields, selling of plastic goods etc.

Ramani’s film takes us on a journey through the centres where is puppetry is shown and the puppeteers live. It concentrates on the puppetry from the four southern states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra. The film adopts a documentary style consisting of interviews, excerpts from shows, peep into the lives and habits of puppeteers. There is an undercurrent of pathos throughout the film – the poverty faced by the puppeteers because of the changing social and cultural value systems, their moving away from the traditional vocation to  modern survival modes, the desperate attempts to keep the art form afloat and the regret felt by the veterans in stacking their puppets in lofts and never getting a chance for a full show. They are trying to keep the form alive through adopting modern themes and performances at village junctions and festivals. Those which are still associated with the temple rituals do not make any substantial change in themes. But, barring the puppeteers of Kerala, all the other southern forms are originated from Maharashtra and they adopt not only themes which are popular (other than epic) and also include songs sung in the style of films and gestures and episodes which are closer to real life and therefore more popular.

Ramani’s film is a fervent plea to help these puppeteers to keep their form alive with dignity and self respect by using modern methods of communication and creating an awareness of the art form in a modern set of viewers who are more used to the film and TV culture. At a human level, Ramani has managed to create a circle of friends among the puppeteers and to foster a feeling of fellowship amongst themselves rather than petty jealousies arising from pressure and lack of work on account of competition.

In the discussion, Veenapani raised a vital question. She wanted to know whether film makers like Ramani can do something to make the art once again central to their life. She mentioned that Aadishakti’s preoccupation in holding these shows and exposing them to a public was to find out what they can as an organization do to help them.  Ramani said the present situation existed because of lack of opportunity to hold their shows, poverty and internal rivalries.  He felt that exposure of this art form to city audiences was the only way to give the artists a chance. Government agencies have been helping them to some extent. But, according to Ramani these were being done to promote propagandistic or touristy measures which did not exactly help the puppeteers. The only way to help them is to organize performances where they can truly reveal the potential of their art form and thereby maintain their dignity and self respect.

With this in mind he organized a puppet festival at Chennai with the help of Alliance Francaise of Madras. This gave the puppeteers a chance to mix with others, take part in discussions and expose the city audience to the merits of their performances. He also arranged shows in schools which at a later stage organized whole day puppet festivals. Truly there was an awareness of the shadow puppetry as an art form and its potential to upgrade and infuse modernity. Ramani goes to the extent of saying if the shadow puppetry is shown in all its original grandeur, no amount of technology can hold a candle to the fascination created by it.

The discussion then turned to the fact in spite of government’s and private persons intentions to help the audience interest is dwindling. Unlike other traditional forms such as the classical dances and music for which even now there is a sizeable audience, a folk form such as shadow puppetry has still to go a long way to gain popular acceptance and interest. Ramani’s argument was that audience also are turning towards the art forms which give value for money. So, while the government and other organizations can give monetary aid or arrange performances, the  actual stimulus will have to come from the performers who have to be committed and take a serious interest in the form.

Vinay talked about the break down in the supportive systems in the community and how it affected the artists. An art form handed down from father to son, looses its charm for the son, who is lured by other ways of earning more money and thereby eking out a livelihood. Also with migration comes a lack of identity and pride in one’s own culture.  Ramayana is a selling product. But the form in which Ramayana is presented becomes the moot point. So, instead of just talking about creating a better interest in spectators, more research and active effort has to be made to translate into a reality. Form can be forwarded in many ways from many points of view.

Abhishek was asking about how to make this form accessible to a popular audience. He had in mind a younger audience who are aware of traditional forms and cultural nuances , but are techno-savvy. Ramani at this point said he a documentary film maker also is in the same position as the puppeteers with regard to his form of art. It is not popular with a mass audience. But, then, why should it be? That was not his intention. He is happy with a smaller crowd. No one can create an art form just by using the argument it should appeal to the common man. And, who asked Ramani constituted the mass or popular audience? 10 people, 100 people or 1000 people.  He can only make a film which he is committed to. All he can do is to stand by his work and not agree to any change or compromise in the making of it. He can through exposure give a chance to the artists such as shadow puppeteers. But, he cannot create a film which would appeal to mass audiences and thereby promote the cause of the puppeteer.

Vasanthi pointed out that shadow puppetry can be upgraded by using it in productions such as Vishal Dar’s “About Ram”. Also as there are now activity classes in schools pertaining to puppetry, children’s imagination can be ignited to use them in newer stories also. The relationship between animation and puppetry could also be explored. But, all this will have to be done, after proper research and using of imagination. An artificial adaptation of a theme or form just to make the art form popular will have no lasting validity.

Dr. Clifford Jones emphasized on the importance of maintaining the quality of puppetry making and puppet shows, while initiating innovations. He felt that the modern puppets lacked the traditional artistic quality and the form itself has become synthetic and artificial. He said revitalizing has to be done carefully. Watch out for people who claim to be interested but are not really clued in on the distinctive quality of the form in its ethnic, cultural and linguistic specificity. Decline in the form is mainly due to the change in audience sensitivity. There has been a shift from the agricultural rural society more interested in working in land and with nature. With this change the kind of art form which appeals to people also has changed.

Ramani feels that the only way to give life to the form is by creating a  vocabulary of communication outside the frame on a mass public level. A vocabulary to articulate  the art form through a relation to the art form has to be found. So create a vocabulary by talking to people, understanding them and helping them to create a new awareness to life, aesthetic sense keeping the importance of the form itself.

The basic facts to be remembered in this context are:

Theatre, puppetry etc require  greater audience and a general sensibility of the potential of the form.
It is a knowledge system passed down through the  hereditary  path. The path broke down. It is not a question of mere manipulation of puppets. There are more important cultural aspects such as the oral/text recited.

The relevance of puppetry in modern society is indefinable. The  grace factor would not work today. Bringing rains or being blessed would not provide motivation to people to watch puppet shows. Ramayana has also become a selling product. Subversions to the original may succeed.

The main question is how do you reach the audience with puppetry. For this, both the audience and the puppeteers have to change and have dialogues. Ramayana could be taught in schools. Puppeteers could be educated and given an awareness of modern audience propensities. The audience could be exposed to the theatrical aspects of shadow puppetry.
Vasanthi Shankaranarayana
Adishakti Laboratory of Theatre Arts Research
17 March 2009
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