The assignment is of performing the story of Ambedkar in a folk art form, shadow puppetry. Shadow puppet theatre is widely held in the southern districts of Tamilnadu. Though it is prevalent in most of the South Asian countries it habitually getting ostracized in the villages. Such a disgusting circumstance prolongs for the past fifteen years. Most of the puppeteers deserted the tradition of performance, have turn out to be wandering laborers in the cities. The history of puppeteers who survive in Tamilnadu is absorbing.
Traditional shadow puppet performers portray themselves as a migrated community originally from Maharashtra, a state of Central India. They verbalize a dialect of Marathi among themselves and entitle this as their mother tongue. However, they are conversant in Tamil and their command over a range of Tamil dialects is astonishing. They fit in to a caste community called ‘mantigar’. They have a legend to explain their migration from Maharashtra to Tamilnadu some five centuries back. Their narrative relates themselves to a Maraththa ruler, Saraboji, who ruled the central part of Tamilnadu having Tanjavoor as his capital. According to their legend they were brought here with the warriors of King Saraboji. We can easily identify a tone of pride whenever they tell this legend. It sounds they demand a political identity by keeping this narrative as their migration tale. Similarly they have one more reason for claiming supremacy against others, however this time it is more and more religious in nature. The ‘Story of Rama’, they perform through shadow puppet theatre gives them immense pleasure and they believe that they are chosen by god’s grace for this profession. One puppeteer says, “Our body and soul are grown with the ringing of the sound ‘rama’”.
The only folklore that has a south Asian currency is at its death bed. Since there was no particular traditional institutional back up for this art form in Tamilnadu (in some other south Asian societies shadow puppet theatre is solemnized and adopted by religious institutions), or any other state sponsorships to enliven, it slowly vanishes from the cultural canvas of Tamil society. The debacle of the puppeteers begins with their selling of bullock cart. Then there follows the light and sound system in the list of sold out items. Finally they displace themselves to the nearby town, leaving the leather puppets those have been prepared by their forefathers’ minimum of hundred years back to the digestive system of termites. This is the gist of the life of Tamil puppeteers.
The puppeteers’ analysis of the devastating situation of shadow puppet theatre singled out the boom of electronic media as the major reason. Specifically, the society’s crazy over cinema and television. Both the industries, puppeteers blame, systematically manipulate the narrative patterns of shadow puppets from the story line to the extant of characterization. When people find the Rama story as television series, they unconsciously establish an intimacy with that. The puppeteers are very stubborn in their conclusion that electronic media overtook the shadow puppet because of its sexual content. The mass media’s formula of mixing sex and religion within their narrative seems to be the key of all these problems. Hence the Tamil puppeteers Don Quixotically develop a weapon against the mass media; and it is popularly called as ‘Record Dance’.
There is no equivalent Tamil term for ‘record dance’. It is known by this Anglo Saxon word even in the remote villages. It can be considered as a local art form basically sprouts out from narrative patterns of commercial Tamil films. Unlike any other, Indian popular films and so Tamil films have an inevitable motif called film songs. The songs are choreographed and incorporated within the story line of the feature films. ‘Record dance’ is a mimic of this motif. The record dance players will maladroitly costume themselves as the film actors and actresses and try to redo the same dance sequence live in front of the village audience. Astonishing sexual gestures are the salient features of record dance. People more or less incorporated these as a part and parcel of their popular culture. For the past two or three decades the existence of this dance form becomes inevitable in all festivities and celebrations. When the puppeteers have found that the folk community begun to withdraw its loyalty upon traditional performances such as shadow puppet theatre, the mechanism designed to pull back the audience was the introduction of ‘record dance’ within their shadow puppet performance.
The shadow puppet performance which had been enacted for two to three hours has been reduced into a thirty or forty minute capsule. The remaining two hours has been allotted for ‘record dance’. Young male and female who are camouflaged themselves as tinsel characters will occupy the stage and exhibit the popular mimes and gestures ordained for the song sequences. Some puppeteers will be lucky to have a young husband and wife in their troupe, and then there will not be any problem in organizing ‘record dance’. But in a considerable number of troupes there will not be any newly married people; contrarily one can find young males and females who are brothers and sisters. The puppeteers never hesitate to allow a brother and a sister to perform the ‘record dance’. The worst affected troupes will be the ones that have no such young people as their members. These troupes naturally withdraw from the tradition of shadow puppet performance and become unskilled laborers in small towns and cities.
We strongly believe that shadow puppet theatre should be a fitting medium to disseminate the life and thoughts of Ambedkar. Not only Ambedkar, I had a strong belief that any kind of social criticism could be well accommodated within the narrative pattern of this traditional theatrical form. The technology of shadow puppetry is hypnotic. The inherent binary, ‘colored shadows’, is a point of attraction. Hence, the subversion inspired by two comical characters, Uchikudumi and Uluvathalaiyan, is a unique feature of this theatrical form. Therefore, we chose shadow puppet theatre as a suitable traditional art form to visually represent the ‘Ambedkar’s Story’. Of course, this is the title we have given for the new shadow puppet performance.
It was like an accident we got acquaints with a traditional shadow puppet performer, who lived in a nearby town Kovilpatti, Lakshmana Rao. Since he had no youngsters in his performing troupe he was suffering much in doing the puppetry without ‘record dance’. We explained our project, ‘Ambedkar’s Story’, to him. His reaction was double. At one level he sensed a possibility of getting the assurance for regular performance; contrarily at another level he was not sure whether he could concoct the performance text of an altogether new story line. As he was an illiterate, he felt nervous about the creation of new text. Though we had explained in great length against the myth, ‘creativity always goes with literacy’ to him and had elaborated the importance of being an innovative traditional performer, he never regained confidence of doing that. Finally he came up with an alternative that he would ask the assistance of a one another performer called Muthukumar Rao for spinning the new performance. Muthukumar Rao was a cousin brother of Lakshmana Rao. He began his life as a record dancer and then became puppeteer. Since he had sensed the devastating situation of puppetry, he trained himself as a bow-song performer (another popular, religious folk performing art) and an instrument player (he played key board). Most important factor is he is a literate shadow puppet performer.
The project was designed of having three phases – formulating the songs and dialogues of the performance at the first level; producing necessary leather puppets will be the second phase; and correlating the animation of the puppets with the text. Naturally we began at the first level. Conceiving the textual part of the performance was initiated by us with the repeated elaboration of the life and thoughts of Ambedkar.
Lakshmana Rao was the classic example of a traditional folk performer. He would be around fifty. But he always maintained forty. For that he referred the experience of visiting Dhanushkodi after the historical storm hit it. He would be telling that he was ten at that time. That was his simple arithmetic of calculating years. He continuously chewed beetle leaves. Whenever he encountered literates face to face his reaction would be unease. However, as soon as the person lost his eye contact he turned cheek. He was simple and raw. He got pride of whatever he had known and be tranquil where ever he was ignorant. He was so eager to see his photograph with a feature about his art form in news magazines. However Muthukumar Rao was slightly twisted. He was a folk artist with cell phone facilities. He was almost running length and breadth for various kinds of performances he accepted. He had the habit of negotiating the amount, whatever it might be, proposed to him. He was vociferous and also professional. But, reprehensibly the intricacies of our project were astutely grasped by the later, but not the former.
The work had been bifurcated. It was decided that the textual section would be done by Muthukumar, while the leather puppets would be prepared by Lakshmanan. Both the process was continued for almost a month.
The traditional shadow puppeteers’ mother tongue was not Tamil. They speak a remote dialect of Marathi. Among themselves this dialect of Marathi is their only communicative medium. They use Tamil language to interact with the others. They call their caste identity as ‘Mandikar’. Among them the proper name of the male will find a suffix ‘rao’ while the female will have ‘bai’.
There was a migration tale popular among these people regarding their arrival to Tamilnadu from the present day Maharashtra during reign of King Saraboji of Tanjore. Their oral records concocted a tale about their migration with the regiments of the king. Such kind of stories of affiliation with the state and power for their community gives them immense pleasure. Moreover they strongly believed that their community’s existence is to sing and spread the story of Rama. They proudly said, “We earned our food through chanting the word ‘rama’, ‘rama’”. Still they spread the belief that if the story of Rama is performed for ten continuous days then there will be rainfall. Earlier many villagers subscribed to these superstitions and supported the artists. However, the fact that weather is highly relied upon the global environmental conditions rather than the narrative pattern of Lord Rama disturbed them pragmatically. Nevertheless, they are very much proud about their professional link with lord Rama and legendary connections with king Saraboji. Since they sing the story of Rama, they claimed, they don’t consume alcohol. They are very particular at least at the doxa level that the performer should lead a sacred way of life while enacting the ten days Rama story. To the extreme, though their performing area is crowded with leather puppets they are very careful in avoiding any contact to their legs with the puppets. However they had a strong opinion that touching the puppets with the legs is an act of derogation. They considered the puppets as sacred. Hence the puppets are made up of goats’ skin but not the buffalo skin.
Our team explained the story of Ambedkar to the performers inch by inch. Then our interaction entered into the arena of visually representing the family background, childhood experiences, and the struggles of Ambedkar in pursuing higher studies, etc. While writing the biography of Ambedkar, Dhananjay Geer narrated one incident which is none other than sanctifying the birth of Ambedkar. One of the uncles of Ambedkar was a self proclaimed sanyasin. He foretold the birth of ‘Ambedkar’ to his father. This reference made the puppeteers merry. As they are accustomed to the stories of celestial beings in the traditional form of shadow puppetry, the incident which signified that Ambedkar is also a saintly figure became a point of departure. Hence they felt that ‘Ambedkar Puppet Show’ could be begun with this episode. They had they own logic for that. They opined that the puppet for the uncle character who prophesized the birth of Ambedkar was already available with them; the Viswamithra or the Vashista puppet of Ramayana show could be used as the uncle of Ambedkar.
We were stubborn and stern in one point. Deification of Ambedkar was not our agenda. We were very clear that we didn’t require more deities. The puppeteers’ idea was basically against our mission. We would like to portray Ambedkar as a wounded bird, that never given its fight against castiesm. Therefore, we wished to be far away from the puranic conception of Dhananjay Geer and puppeteers. We frankly conveyed this to them.
Then we designed the story line of Ambedkar puppet show linear and straightforward. The central conflict of every scene was improvised continuously. Then the puppets required for each and every scene was listed out. We asked the shadow puppet artists to concoct the dialogues and songs for all the scenes.
At this point we encountered a peculiar problem which was unfathomable for us that the puppeteers were not feeling free in writing the dialogues. The traditional oral performers experienced a ‘writers’ block’. Though there we were to help them in identifying the required puppets and in reminding the storyline, they felt blank. At this point we came across an important point in the creative process of folk performance.
We thought, as if in the production of a modern theatrical performance or in the making of a feature film, shadow puppetry was also based on visual language. That was why we compelled them to conceive the entire story in the form of scenes. However, then they felt a stumbling block even after providing all kind of information. When we asked them, ‘what was the problem?’ they simply replied, ‘we didn’t know to spell dialogues or songs unless and until we hold a puppet in our hand’. That was an eye opener for us, they continued, ‘we have to feel the puppet to think of their speech and songs’.
Then we realized the mistake we did. One should not imagine the puppet show as a series of visuals. The puppeteer conceptualized the entire storyline in reference to the shadow puppets. They internalized the performance not as a sequence of episodes but as the animated trajectory of the puppets. What we had in our mind was the understanding of the audience who happened to watch only the animation of the coloured shadows of the puppet. Contrarily, the understanding of the performers who always sit in the backstage will definitely be different. Hence we immediately changed our method.
The internalization of the message of Ambedkar within the puppeteers was happened in a very slow pace. The basic information that Ambedkar was not a Tamilian but a Maharashtrian was realized by them after a full day of discussion. Some what they strongly felt that Ambedkar should be a Tamilian. Though there was lot of references about the city ‘Mumbai’ in his life history they wrongly took it that the entire project was about a Tamilian who migrated to Mumbai. However, when we made it clear that he was a Maharastrian, they started to feel an intimacy. The shadow puppeteers were also Maharashtrians! But we avoided this coincidence.
They started to enquire about his family background with much interest. ‘Why the names of Ambekar’s family suffixed with ‘rao’?’ was their question. They discussed among themselves about the name of Ambedkar’s mother, ‘Beema Bai’ (we should remember that the puppeteers also have the custom of males’ name with the suffix ‘rao’ and females’ name with ‘bai’).
Their curiosity then switched towards the caste identity of Ambedkar. When we told them, ‘Mahar’, they didn’t like to believe that. They reacted as if Ambedkar would have been a ‘Mandikar’ (the caste of puppeteer). In order to tease them, we told, ‘your caste is closely associated with the shathriya community, but Ambedkar was an untouchable, how is it possible that your caste and Ambedkar’s caste have been related to one another?’ They had nothing to say.
When they came to know about the entire life of Ambedkar, full of sorrow, pain, and failure, their attitude had been changed dramatically. Once when we were in the middle of the discussion, Lakshmana Rao, the elder puppeteer, told us like this: ‘I think, our Mandigar caste should have been an untouchable caste like Ambedkar’s. We, as a folk performer, experienced the similar kind of humiliation. We also don’t have permanent houses to live; we are forced to be nomads; people compelled us to do shameful things; for a single piece of bread we do it. I can tell you, there is no difference between us and an untouchable. The myth we believe that we are shatriyas is meaningless’.
This is the message, message of the life of Ambedkar. I don’t want to reduce this as an isolated revelation taken place within a folk artist, Lakshmana Rao. The seed for the enlightenment is within the life story of Ambedkar. The persons who establish acquaintance with his life are initially struck by the raw nature of it. The painful experiences he had, the way he marched forward, and the method he continuously improvised himself are all the significant pages of a dalit life. His life is stored with instances which transform all to feel like an oppressed. Lakshmana Rao, the old, traditional folk performer had acquired this consciousness from the story of Ambedkar.
Even before the completion of the project Ambedkar, we felt success.