November 11, 2023 08:28 am | Updated 08:29 am IST – MADHAVAPATNAM (KAKINADA District)
The ancient art form of leather puppetry is on the brink of extinction, even as the number of puppeteers residing on the banks of Buckingham Canal in Madhavapatnam gram panchayat near Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, has dwindled owing to an unprecedented change in their religious profile.
These puppeteers, who migrated from Maharashtra, settled in Madhavapatnam panchayat in Godavari region, nearly 5 km from Kakinada city. In the 1980s, Telugu actress Jamuna helped them get house sites in the panchayat where at least 300 families currently reside. A majority of them embraced another faith and subsequently quit puppetry which is purely based on Hindu mythological stories.
“At present, nearly 60 performers are left in the field of puppetry, More than 50% of those 300 families have adopted another faith. As a consequence, scores of performers quit puppetry. The last remaining 60 performers have been formed into five troupes, each comprising at least three to five women,” says Thota Balakrishna, one of the leading performers in the Godavari region.
Nearly 100 more families have settled in Peddapuram, Karapa, Mandapeta and Konaseema in erstwhile East Godavari district. In the erstwhile West Godavari district, there are not less than 10 families but they lead a nomadic lifestyle.
“The performers are expected to recite tales extracted from Hindu mythological texts such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Such a requisite might lead many who have embraced another faith to quit the field,” adds Mr.Balakrishna.
In Rajiv Nagar under Madhavapatnam panchayat, puppeteers in another settlement are facing a similar predicament.
“Our troupe has performed less than 10 shows since the COVID-19 restrictions were eased. How can any family that depends on puppetry survive? Many of us are literally begging on the streets as we are left with no option to earn a livelihood,” says 34-year-old puppeteer Anaparthi Raju, who sells used clothes on a two-wheeler.
“The young artistes are managing to find some or the other work. But the older ones who devoted their lives to promoting this ancient art are now reeling under psychological shock in the absence of any performances. They have nothing to cheer about when their puppets are lying idle,” adds Raju, a second-generation puppeteer. His father, Anaparthy Subba Rao, is 70 and out of business.
A resident of Rajiv Nagar, Mr.Subba Rao groomed a good number of puppet artistes in Andhra Pradesh and performed across India. But since last year, the All India Radio has stopped telecasting recordings of Mr.Subba Rao’s troupe.
The impact of new and digital media as well as a lack of patronage by the public are factors that have pushed the lives of the puppeteers into penury, forcing them to scout for alternative livelihood options.
The puppeteers perform plays based on 25 core themes in Hindu mythology. All of them require about 24 women to lend female voices to the characters in those plays. The words have to be memorised as the script is not available with them in written format anywhere.
“Today, we have less than a dozen women performers who have mastered many of the plays. Anaparthi Janardhanamma, at 90 years, is the oldest women performer alive but she is not active nowadays,” says Mr.Balakrishna.
Anaparthi Prabhavathi, Anaparthi Tirupatamma, Anaparthi Pallalamma and Thota Rajeswari are among the women stalwarts in leather puppetry in Kakinada district who have famously lent their voice to the mythological characters of Sita, Draupadi, Satyabhama, Rukmini, Yashoda and Subhadra. In 2021 alone, two distinguished women performers —Thota Satyanarayamma and Thota Kusalamma — passed away.
At least 10 amateur women performers serve as back-up in the absence of the regular female troupe member.
Woman puppeteer Vodimenu Nookaratnam, who is in her 50s, says: “I learnt puppetry from my father. I have two children but they had no interest in pursuing puppetry. No girl or married woman is willing to learn puppetry as it has no scope for livelihood.”
In recent years, a group of youths were groomed in leather puppetry under a programme funded by the State government. However, none of them pursued puppetry seriously.
Slow death of craft
There are four puppeteers who craft puppets with goat skin in the panchayat — Anaparthi Subba Rao, Thota Edukondalu, Thota Annavaram and Thota Balu. However, they too find it difficult to get orders for new puppets. Puppets of various characters are crafted on goat skin and painted with natural colours. Their lifespan extends to several decades until it is exposed to the elements.
Thota Nagalakshmi, another woman puppeteer, laments, “We are not able to convince young women and men to learn the art as the future is bleak. Probably, we are the last generation to have an association with puppetry in the Godavari region.”
Experiment with challenges
The puppeteers have rewritten their plays to accommodate more contemporary themes that suit government programmes. “The content for various State and Central government schemes has been written to suit the tone of promotion. The duration has also been reduced to half an hour. But government assignments come rarely,” says a puppeteer of Madhavapatnam.
As per the traditional format of puppetry, the performance takes place throughout the night, irrespective of the play. The same format is adhered to if the performance is staged at the temples in Simhachalam and Annavaram in Andhra Pradesh. The government assignments are fairly distributed among the troupes so that each of them gets an opportunity to perform.
In recent years, the puppeteers have undertaken experiments to bring out decorative puppets to keep the craft alive and explore the market. Among the beautiful creations on which the puppet motifs are painted is the lampshade, but this experiment is yet to find attention in market. In Anantapur district, the puppeteers have already tapped the market for their craft.
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