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Some things are hardwired into our DNA no matter where we might travel across the globe. Language and vocabulary feature right at the top of the list. The words ‘Karnataka’ and ‘handcrafted puppetry’ jumped out at me from my email inbox one morning. I was intrigued and soon found myself driving up winding California hillsides to a home in Los Altos hills for a lecture demonstration on traditional wood puppetry of Karnataka. Hosted by Bay Area art & cultural organization SACHI, the event featured Anupama Hoskere, a familiar name I had heard during my visits to India.
Together with her husband Vidyashankar Hoskere, Anupama founded “Dhaatu” an organization dedicated to all things puppetry related – the first of its kind, in Bengaluru. In Sanskrit the word ‘Dhaatu’ means the root, the soul, the essence of everything. The Hoskeres established this non-profit organization with the aim of imparting traditional wisdoms that today’s world can benefit from. Annually, Dhaatu is also the venue of the famous Navratra Mahotsava – the pageant of dolls – depicting upwards of 5000 dolls displaying various scenes from Hindu mythology! It was one of those ‘must see’ items on my list that had slipped through the cracks over the years, and now here Anupama was in my backyard! Serendipity or what?!
On a small stage in an intimate home theater, a single chair sat occupied by a brightly clad puppet. She was outfitted in elaborately fashioned jewelry and draped in a beautiful sari, her large kajal-laden eyes taking in the gathered audience, as we sat eagerly awaiting the evening’s program. Even in stillness she seemed to fill the space with her presence. It made you wonder what she might be like when animated.
Walking onto the stage Anupama’s presence was just as magnetic, the passion for her life’s work, evident in every word she uttered. Over the next hour we were initiated into the elements of puppetry, mythology, and a behind-the-scenes peek into this fascinating world! Currently on a 20 city tour of the U.S, Anupama and her Dhaatu team is raising funds for the ‘Support a Child’ program. They are showcasing a novel concept with their production of “Malavikagnimitram” – a romance set in the second century BCE, which plays out in the court of King Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty. The lecture concluded with the enactment of a scene from the production featuring the puppet on stage, who was joined by Anupama’s daughter Divya Hoskere – an established Bharatanatyam dancer.
Anupama graciously consented to an interview with India Currents in the midst of hopping across timezones on their hectic 20 city tour.
P.K: Thank you for speaking with me Anupama! The lecture demonstration was a wonderful experience. We would love to know more about the cause you are supporting with your tour of the U.S.
A.H: At Dhaatu, we like to involve ourselves with causes like “Support a Child USA” – an organization doing creditable work that needs our help and support. They came to us with the idea of sponsoring a puppetry production on a tour of the U.S, and the idea was both challenging and exciting! It also enabled Dhaatu to make a creative contribution to an already valuable cause. No questions asked when such an offer comes our way!
P .K: Indian mythology offers a plethora of subject matter. Why choose this particular story for your production?
A.H: Malavikagnimitram is a romantic comedy; an elaborate, many-layered story. It was originally a Sanskrit play written by the famous Kalidasa. It lends itself beautifully to a sophisticated production. And it also makes for great entertainment! It lets us showcase the exciting advancements in the field of puppetry that is being practiced today. Set in the 2nd century BCE, in Vidisha, in the court of King Agnimitra, the plot details the highly evolved artistic and cultural scene of the time period. The Indo-Greek war is mentioned – the war with the ‘Yavanas’! Details like a ‘Dolotsava’ ceremonial procession in a temple is depicted in great depth. It is a richly vivid portrayal of so many aspects of life of that period in history. Great material for a production!
P.K: Our life path takes us to interesting places. Yours has been more than just ‘interesting’ in every sense of the word! How do you go from a Masters degree in Engineering, a job and life in the U.S, to a totally divergent life hand crafting puppets?
A.H: Passion! That is the one ingredient that makes such a shift possible! I was on what was widely accepted as the ‘path of success’ in a competitive world. And I was doing very well. But I didn’t really know quite how I got there! A day came when I realized that the enrichment I received in my childhood, had ultimately led to my being where I was. Then the question I was faced with was, “how can I give back what I received to the next generation”? This was what helped make my choice to return to what I loved most.
P.K: And what was the enrichment in your childhood like? We would love to know more about it.
A.H: I was blessed to have grown up with my grandmother who told wonderful stories! Not just stories like Panchatantra etc that was common, but she also narrated scenes from Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays. She was very well read, and passionate about sharing her knowledge. Nowadays children have many more options if they want to familiarize themselves with mythological stories. Our choices were limited. That’s why my grandmother’s oral storytelling was precious to me! We also had traditional Yakshagana troupes perform near where we lived. Watching those plays, we saw old storylines being depicted in new ways all the time! Creativity was boundless. That sort of learning and enrichment is priceless!
P.K: Your audience is often comprised of children. How do you see their involvement in your shows?
A.H: The impact of real time entertainment in puppetry is very different from virtual entertainment and engagement. And children especially, they get involved in a very deep way! Puppets become more real to them than the people around them! Communication happens in a beautiful manner. Their minds open up differently and it creates a huge potential for self exploration with something they might go on to create by themselves. It is like opening a door to lifelong exploration!
P.K: What is their reaction when they connect with the characters?
A.H: Different age groups express in different ways. But all of them engage 100%! It is fun to watch them get into the scene and characters! When we staged Bhakta Prahlada, after the final scene, the puppet Prahlada was garlanded! No one else was given this honor! It just goes to show that if the right setting is provided for a puppet show, audience – no matter their age – can engage in a wonderful way!
P.K: Each of your puppets is created with such attention to detail! Where do you draw your resources for costuming, era appropriate jewelry etc?
A.H: All our puppets are handcrafted to the tiniest detail! We design them and use a lighter wood to allow better handling. There are various resources to research and collect information. Ajanta-Ellora paintings, research by scholars on various dynasties, the staff at the Mysore palace for example. And there is the internet of course. But because historical authenticity is very important to us at Dhaatu, we take extra care and go in search of verified information. Many of the Puranas and epic poems have historical details and visual imagery given in great detail. You just have to know where to find it. But it is available. And it is a treasure trove for us when we start creating our own puppets.
P.K: You have been involved with puppetry on the global scene. How do you see the art form showcased in Czech Republic or Indonesia? How does it compare to the way it is received in India?
A.H: I went to Europe as part of a scholarship. Then I realized that there is a division between art for children and adults. That is how it is perceived. Puppetry was mainly developed as an entertainment for children. There was a rebel movement which also developed alongside mainstream practices. Both thrived. Tourism is key to the survival of such artforms in Europe and Indonesia. In North India puppeteers had access to western and Japanese styles of the artform. So their styles became more contemporary. In South India we were untouched by such western influences and retained traditional styles. But with time, urbanization took away patronage for this artform. Without patronage puppetry cannot survive! Our numbers started dwindling. Today there is a new revival, a new energy on the puppetry scene. More traditional practices are being showcased and accepted once more.
P.K: Under lining your comment from the lecture demonstration, I would like you to address the reasoning behind your choice of basing a majority of your productions on mythology as opposed to current social issues.
A.H: It is my conviction that mythology is always a best seller! No matter what the storyline, and however repetitive, the manner in which you treat it will set you apart. South India’s Yakshagana is a great example of this! Yakshagana artistes depict so many subtle layers of the Puranas. Knowledge is important. And since mythology involves the use of all this knowledge, investing in this particular dimension of mythology stimulates the storyline.
Socially relevant subject matter needs financing and patronage. Also there is a limited timeline in terms of relevancy for many such topics. The Government of India has used puppeteers to implement their political agendas. If the government changes, their policies become irrelevant. And the patronage disappears! Puppeteers who invest considerable time and resources in the creation of specific puppets have no protection to weather such situations! It is a short-lived blip that leaves us high and dry! Mythology on the other hand, always endures and comes out on top!
P.K: With your current production Malavikagnimitram, you have an interesting concept of combining live actors and dancers with puppets. Highly engaging, as we saw from the scene enacted during the lecture. Challenging as well I am sure?
A.H: Oh sure! It is like putting the puppets to a litmus test when a live dancer/actor shares the stage with them. My main concern was whether the audience would ‘see’ the puppet at all?! Or would the actor/dancer upstage the puppets? The current concept was built up slowly over two or three productions. We are still working on polishing it further, that process never ends. But in the end we realized that the puppets could hold their own! The interaction between a live dancer and a puppet is magical! A great example of this type of interaction can be seen in our production “Vijayanagara Vybhava”. You will see what I mean by puppets managing to shine on their own merit! Yes, there are challenges, of course. Stage design is the obvious challenge. The Proscenium theater design means there is limited space for dancers when sharing it with puppets. So we had to redesign the stage and the placement of characters over several iterations to make sure we could create this magic!
P.K: Does India have guilds or cooperatives of puppeteers? And how difficult is it to procure funding for productions?
A.H: No, there is no such thing as a guild for puppeteers as yet. State level academies and a Government entity – Sangeet Natak Academy, do exist. And yes, it is a challenge to get funding. Private patronage what we have at the moment.
P.K: What types of workshops does Dhaatu offer?
A.H: Dhaatu offers workshops for all ages – starting at age 3 to adults! Puppetry and puppet making teaches aesthetics in a way that lego & robotics etc do not. They certainly have their positive points. But puppetry is multi faceted. Besides aesthetics, it also involves aspects of engineering and requires fine motor skills both in making and handling puppets. There is the aspect of movement with puppetry that needs to be mastered. When you are able to control a puppets subtle movements, it is a thrilling experience!
P.K: Your personal journey with puppetry started with a ‘leap of faith’. And you just found out you are the recipient of a prestigious award!
A.H: Yes! My phone was inundated with congratulatory messages since early this morning and that is how I discovered I had been awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! It is a great feeling of satisfaction that a Nation has accepted this artform! My Bharatanatyam guru, the late Smt. Narmada received this award from the hands of the late President Abdul Kalam in 2007. For me to receive the same award is a great honor! I am overwhelmed! All the growing pains and potholes that I have experienced with Dhaatu’s journey is validated by this acknowledgement and ultimate reward! It inspires us to do more and reach greater heights – in making magic with our puppets for the generations to come.
P.K: What are your plans upon your return to Bengaluru?
A.H: Maybe one day of rest and then it is back to work again! The festival season will start soon. During Dussera, Dhaatu opens it doors to showcase our incredible collection of dolls with ‘Dhaatu Navaratra Mahotsava’. We will have over 5000 dolls on display, depicting scenes from mythology. It is an annual event and we have been doing this for a decade now. There’s no resting until that is done!
Anupama’s enthusiasm gives new meaning to the term ‘pulling strings’! Her passion and that of her team at Dhaatu is definitely award worthy. Dhaatu’s workshops and productions bear the hallmark of true creativity while contributing a treasure trove of traditional & cultural knowledge to children and adults alike.
India Currents congratulates Anupama on the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award!
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.