Puppets stringed to a past

Puppets  stringed to a past

Exhibits by MATI are a unique attempt to keep an antique form of artistic expression alive, says Debasrita Chakraborty

Dangling from a string, a puppet has been used since time immemorial to tell a story, communicate with the masses, convey a social message or even create awareness about different issues. The origin of puppetry trickles back to almost 2,500 years ago.

But with the onslaught of technology and newer forms of entertainment, puppets seem to be fighting a losing battle. In order to keep the tradition alive, MATI (Management of Art Treasures of India), a non-profit organisation, recently put up a show titled Gombe, which presented an array of specialised wooden puppets, mostly those sculpted by artists from Karnataka, at Art Konsult, Hauz Khas Village.

Locally called Gaarudi Gombe, which means magical dolls, the Kannada puppets are hung at the end of a string and made of wood, wire, cloth stuffed with cotton, saw dust or rags. What sets them apart is their giganticism as they float around you demi-God like as huge suspended figurines. This probably has to do with the fact that they are mostly recreated Gods and Goddesses, usually used as temple embellishments.

Says Neelam Malhotra of Art Konsult, “These magical wooden puppets are used in performances and sometimes for  religious rituals. Made entirely of wood, they come in various sizes and usually adorn temple facades, linking corridors, stairs or doorways. During various religious festivals, these are taken out on a chariot as tableaus.”

The team of MATI curators took some time collecting varied samples from all over the state. Malhotra shares, “Some of them embody mythological gatekeepers, who are  considered as protective deities. Naturally due to their very public positioning as gatekeepers or as props in flotilla processions, they were subjected to a lot of wear and tear. Temple authorities usually junk the damaged pieces as they do not want ill luck till art connoisseurs or restoration architects buy these from the temple yards.”

At the exhibit, we came across a wooden sculpted puppet of Shiva in a form which is considered auspicious and good for well-being. As the third god of the Hindu triad, we generally label him as a destroyer. But this piece showed us how he was destructing negative forces of evil, ignorance and death. Brahma, the creator God in the triad, was used as door jambs, perhaps, metaphorically, holding together all that is right in the universe. 

Thedwarpalika (doorkeeper) puppets were hand-painted mixed media on wood and in feminine form. But the most beautiful structure was that of a mother and child, which was also hand-painted, mixed media on wood, with intricate period details that brought alive the life and customs of the time. One figurine depicted the unconditional nature of the mother-child relationship, a little boy cavorting in her lap and his brother prancing around, holding her hand all the while. All the puppets had big eyes, with fine detailing of human features and jewellery .

These fragile art works hold a lot of historic value as they document the customs, policies, conventions, traditions, fashions, habits and profession of a specific period and community. Malhotra says, “Earlier, the artists used natural colours but now cheaper, commercial variants have replaced them. These should be kept away from humidity, rain and harsh lights. These have to be kept indoors and handled with care.”

There is clearly not a huge audience for such exhibitions. “Artists, historians, curators, writers and people who appreciate art and ancient artistry usually walk in,” says Malhotra. But with larger-than-life installations from another time, Malhotra feels we would manage to get a glimpse of our civilisational history.



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