Andhra Puppeteers – Q & A

Pluralism and Performance : The Many Voices in Ramayana

Supported by Ford Foundation


This is the summary of the question and answer session held by the viewers and the Andhra Puppeteers after the day of their show.

There were ten people in the group that performed. Ramayana text is used because of its “Mahatwa”(greatness). The head of this group is Chidambara Rao. This group claimed that their grandfather belonged to the Krishna Deva Raya Parampara. The text used is Ranganatha Ramayana approximately 400 years old. Ranganatha wrote Sookshma Ramayana in Telugu, based on Valmiki Ramayana. Telugu translation of the original Ramayana was regionally accepted. Performances lasted usually for 21 days. They performed Sundara Kandam which they performed at Aadishakti usually in nine days. Each important section took up previously decided days.

Ramayana was performed on festive days such as Mahasivarathri,Vinayakachaturthi, Sreerama Navami, Amavasi Jatra, Dasara Jatra, Grama Jatra held once in three years etc.

After the rainy season, the Grama Jatra commences. In the beginning the lake is dry and there is no water. But, after the performance, the rains come and the lake is full. Duration of the performance is usually 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. In order to get rain the Ravana Vadham is performed in full. When Ravana is killed a goat is slaughtered and given as Ahuti(offering). The play ends with Sita’s Agnipravesham. The Rama Pattabhishekam(coronation) is not performed. The narrative in this scene is taken from Tulsidas’s Ramayana where Maya Sita is the one whom Ravana abducts and who finally jumps into fire.AP-Puppets_01This was done as village theatre. Twenty years back eight sarees were used for the screen and covering the marked area for the stage. This was known as Veedhi Natakam and was performed as street theatre. It begins with Kishkinda and Sundara Kandams and ends with the killing of Indrajith in the Yuddha Kandam.

The actors used to replicate the puppets and act in the same style. They removed the puppets and the screen and did the acting themselves helping from behind the screen.

They worshipped the arrow of Rama, in front of the Devi (Mother Goddess) only a goat is killed, no one else. Dialogue is like that used in Yakshaganam or Veedhinatakam. This was considered pre-drama theatre.

Harischandra Natakam has been in existence for the last 80 years. During the last 10 years there have been no changes. The screen which used to be 10’ by 7’ has been lengthened. There have been other inter-art influences also. Andhra Puppets are specially made, big in size, 5’ high, and always in the standing posture. Puppets are made by the puppeteers themselves and their families. In fact, in Nellore district there are about 400 families involved in the puppet making. Women and children are also trained to make puppets. They are also trained in singing also. A child who is only 6 months old starts to practice recital to a pitch and tone. Musical instruments used are Andhra style drum and harmonium. In earlier days, light used to be provided by petromaxes or hook lamps and mud plates lit with castor oil, known as Diya Samaru. Nearly 1 kilo of oil is put in the lamp at one time. A total of 3 kilos of oil is required for a performance. Shadow emerge from the screen. When the shadows are brought in, the screen is filled with shadows as a precursor to the actual puppet being brought on stage. Their company is known as Chaya Nataka Company and they operate in Kakinada, Guntur, Narasaraopeta.
AP-Puppeteers_01The famous film actors S.P. Ranga Rao, Chittoor Nagaiah, Relang Venkateswara Rao (comedian) all adopted the puppet style of acting. Comedian(Vidushaka) is introduced to keep the balance between high seriousness and comedy. Court jester element was used to bring in comedy and with it a hint of reality. Uncomfortable questions are raised through the Vidushaka. Infidelity of the wife is a common theme. They use criticism against immoral and unacceptable practices without making it preachy obviously moralistic and censorious. It provides comic relief to an otherwise serious play and raises the critical voice of the society. Otherwise the text is restricted to a pre-prepared text. Solo voice of popular sentiments is the only impromptu element. Lankini puppet is 20 years old. Skin from raw hide is used to make puppets. Earlier only deer skin was used. But, now goatskin, buffaloe skin etc are used as alternatives. They play with sizes. In ornamentation there is no change, but size increases, designings made suitable for it. Andhra puppets have not changed in style. There is perspective change, change in emotion(Bhav). Instinct for innovation is there. A total of nine colours from black to green are used. There is change in height and colour. Hanuman is shown in different styles – Viswarupa Hanuman, Stone Hanuman, Black Hanuman etc.

The puppeteers livelihood does not entirely depend puppet plays. They are involved in farming and other such jobs.

Chidambara Rao and members from his group also gave examples of dancing and singing in the Veethinatakam and the comedy scene with the puppets, the uncle, his wife and his nephew was enacted.
The quality of singing, the ranges to which voices can be raised and the dramatic quality of the voice through monologues were amazing.

19 March 2009
Adishakti Ramayana Festival


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