November 2013 report
To get started on the task of archiving contemporary puppetry practices of Odisha, it is imperative that I have an idea about the history of the art in the state, the different cultural influences that has gone into it over the years and its present state. When I had asked my collaborator Sri Maguni Charan Kuanar to help me with this, I realized that he is more of a performer, and cannot satisfactorily and coherently answer my queries. He seeing my interest suggested I meet Sri Gouranga Charan Dash a Professor of
Oriya at the Ravensaw University, Cuttack. I met him at the University; he was also holding the post of the Head of the Department and was an extremely busy man. He had done his doctoral thesis was o the puppetry theater of Odisha. I did not realize then that he too was a puppeteer. He gave me a lot of time though. We talked about his experiences in being a practitioner of Ravana Chhaya(shadow puppetry) tradition of Odihsa, of which only two professional troupes exist. He was very happy to see that such a project has been undertaken as there has not been a comprehensive film on the puppetry art of Odisha, and invited me and my wife to his village in Khamar, Angul district about four hundred kilometres away from Bhubaneswar.
In his village Sri Dash has created an institution called ‘Kondheighara’ , a space where there will be a museum on puppetry of Odisha, research books on the subject, an amphitheater where regular shows can be held and a place where all puppeteers across the state can come together and discuss their future. A sprawling five acres of land full of old trees adjacent to a Kolha village. It is name after Guru Kathinanda Das the revered guru of Ravana Chhaya. Sri Dash and his wife both are academicians and have learnt the art of puppet manipulations, sing and perform for traditional texts as well as for new ones that they have developed mostly for Sangeet Natak Academy. There has been a rift with the other Ravana Chhaya troupe which is in the village of Odasa very close to Sri Gouranga’s village. He has been blamed for modernizing the tradition. Sri Gouranga also has arguments in his favour, about why such changes and innovations are required for an art form to survive throughout the ages. He is of the opinion that the traditional Bhata community who were the pioneers of this tradition had also improvised on it as no one knows in which form it was available in antiquity. No Bhata people perform anymore though. The people from the ‘Kela’ community, who were the traditional puppeteers and snake charmers of Odisha, have migrated to different profession other than probably one troupe who practice Sakhi Kondhei (glove puppetry). We discussed extensively the complications that have arisen after the Government has started giving grants for the development of the art. Most of the money is devoured by the middle men and sometimes the poor artists are cheated off their remuneration. Also we see that nowadays many artists are ashamed of their identity as a man of very low caste, as it was the practice before, which deter them from travelling different places in search of their audience. He has also helped me with giving me contacts of other practicing puppeteers, all of whom I intend to document in the course of the term of the fellowship.
Sri Gouranga is about to publish a book called ‘Sacred Shadows’ about shadow puppetry practices of our country and his research material has been also very helpful for my study. We extensively shot with him about the techniques of making leather puppets and their manipulation, the songs that are used, etc. which are currently being edited.
December 2013 report
Maguni Charan Kuanar, veteran rod puppeteer of Odisha and my collaborator for the fellowship was invited by the Dept. of Tourism to perform at the 7th Toshali National Crafts Mela in Bhbaneswar.
Maguni arrived at about 5 pm. The show was scheduled at 6:30 pm. For his performance he needs to create a small wooden box, large enough to house two men who would sit on the floor and manipulate the puppets. Maguni came in a rented out truck from Keonjhar, about four hundred kilometres from
Bhuabaneswar, with a team who had been brought together specifically for te show. Maguni previously had dedicated band members who would travel with him all throughout the year. He would also give them a salary and take care of them. He prefers to work with freelancers as he does not take up shows as much as he used to.
Maguni’s crew hurriedly got busy in constructing their stage. One of the people from the Organizers, a
Govt. officer was seen rebuking Maguni in the Green Room. Later on we came to know that Maguni’s crew did not wear an uniform, they had just their different trousers and shirts on which the organizers would not allow on stage. Maguni went to the far and bought all his crew members a saffron coloured
‘kurta’ but did not buy for himself. Folk artists are hardly treated with any respect in Odisha, may be because most of them belong to lower castes or they come from poor households. The classical artists,
Odishi dancers, singers though are treated with extra courteousness. Many of them are city based, Brahmins or daughters of eminent families. While talking to Maguni just before his show we could feel a hint of sadness in his voice. Maguni and his crew were called up on stage and felicitated by the distinguished guests. He started with a small sequence of ‘Maishashurabdh’ (killing of demon Mahishahura by Devi Durga). Then he started with a sequence from Ramayana. Most of the puppeteers in Odisha even Maguni borrow heavily, mostly the songs, from ‘Bichitra Ramayana’. An early eighteenth century text by poet Biswanath Khuntia in Oriya. It was written keeping Ram Leela peformances in mind and was hugely popular at that time. Maguni also is heavily influenced by the ‘opera’ culture or ‘Jatra’ as it is known in this part of the country. Maguni has incorporated small comic episodes in his show. Characters like Bhagirathi who is a drunkard. The character of the Messenger to Ravana is very popular with audiences. Maguni’s characters are very life like in their body language and expressions. He is a wood sculptor par excellence and a skilled mimicry artist too. The voices of both Bhagirathi and his mother are Maguni’s. What is fantastic is the emotions that he renders through his voice.
Maguni abruptly ended the Ramayana sequence because he had to leave the stage for the next artists.
He quickly performed the fight sequence between Rama and Ravana and ended his performance with a huge applause from the audience.
Maguni and his crew left for their hometown soon after in their truck in the cold of the night as the organizers would not arrange for their stay in the city. Previously they would used to come and stay during performances at the guest house of Sangeet Natak Academy. The organizers claim that they would charge at least five hundred rupees more if they would stay for the night, which is beyond the budget allocated for such programmes.
This was my second visit to Sri GourangaCharan Dash’s house, a two storied, modestly made, overlooking a five acre of cultivable land in the middle of the village Kutharimunda in Khamar in Anugul district. Sri Dash plans to make a museum for puppets and a research centre and an amphitheater for screenings and performances. He and his architect friend from IIT, Mumbai have meticulously planned the venture. Sri Dash was very happy to show us the empty land where he is planning the Centre and added that in a couple of years the entire construction will be complete. By the end of my fellowship period the amphitheater should be done and we planned a small gathering of all puppeteers from Orissa here.
My interest of visiting his house again was to see the leather puppets that he had made for his shows and gathered from others. He had only formed his troupe called Sri Ram Chhaya Gabeshana Parishad in the year 1996 so all his puppets are fairly new. All the old leather puppets of Orissa have been over the years been sold to collectors in India and abroad. So, most of the leather puppets that we see today with the puppeteers are new. Incidentally he was preparing the leather to make a cutout of a puppet.
The process starts with the selection of the animal hide eg. cow, deer, mountain goat, etc. . Deer hide was the most commonly used animal hide for puppets as it is smoother than the others, light transmission can be more, it is thinner and lighter. Nowadays, mountain goat is preferred as there are restrictions in procuring other animal hide. But, with different kinds of leather the effect on the screen is different. Cowhide or mountain goat hide is thicker, heavier less translucent. Since it is heavier its manipulation is limited. The skin can be suitable for characters like trees or animals who are not the main characters and whose movement does not forward the narrative. Deer hide being the lightest and the skin being more translucent can be used for human beings or godly characters like Rama.
The hair was removed from the dry skin of the mountain goat. The skin was then cut according to the sketch on the paper. After the cut is done finely, the linear cuts inside the puppet and perforations will be made to give the shape of the body, a resemblance of the costume and ornaments, etc. Previously the Ravanachhaya puppets had very few lines in the body and the shapes of the figures were rather primitive. Nowadays the puppets resemble the Pata painting style with more ornamentation and intricate cuts. Still the puppets do not have joints, so their limbs cannot be moved separately. Unlike the other shadow puppets from Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh the puppets in Orissa are not coloured. Sri Gouranga Dash however paints the skin of the puppet slightly to give an appearance of skin tone, also to make a dramatic composition. For example he had painted the hut, in which Rama, Sita and Lakshman were staying during their exile, black. The hut will be always in the background and will not interfere with the storytelling. Also it might help in creating depth in the composition. Interestingly he had also used Saura (tribal community of western Orissa) painting on the walls of the huts. He suggests that if Rama had been staying in the Dandakaranya forests he must have encountered such paintings on the huts. These additions also can help to make the stories more human and acceptable to the local audiences.
All moving shadow puppets are cut such that they give a profile section of the characters. The characters are also limited to move from one end of the screen to the other horizontally. The depth is compressed as all background elements that set up the ‘mise en scene’ are almost on the same plane as the characters. So, either one can use puppets diminished in size to give a notion of perspective or play with a movable light source. Traditionally for some actions like Hanumana’s flight across the sea the puppeteers have incorporated three distinct body positions of Hanumana to give a feeling that he is flying. But, in traditional story telling style it is probably not important to make the puppets resemble the characters in great detail, the shadows look more vibrant and dramatic when they are not defined. The songs that accompany the play and the puppets in the hands of a skillful artist can only make it come alive.
The traditional shadow puppeteers were the ‘Bhata’ community who took up the text ‘Bichitra Ramayana’ by BiswanathKhuntia. BiswanathKhuntia was a celebrated poet of the early seventeenth century. His work the Bichitra Ramayana or the Wonderful Ramayana has become the most popular Ramayana in the Oriya language because of its lucid and simple language, also as it contains dramatizations that appeal to the common folk.
Two printed editions of the work are available at present .One is published by RadharamanPushtakalaya, Cuttack and other by Jagannath Singh. Both the publishers have included passages from poets other than Viswanath, like Vikram, Gopi, Gopal, Narana, Padmanabha, Lakshman, Jadunandan, Shyama, Kapila and VaisyaSadasibha. The work was completed in the 25thAnka of Divyasimha Deva I, corresponding to 1692-1720. Composed with UpendraBhanja’s( roughly 1670 – 1740 , also known as ‘Kabi- samrat’ , the emperor of poets ) BaideheesaBilasha which greatly appealed to the learned pundits, Bichitra Ramayana of Khuntia mainly appealed to the common folk, particularly the dancers and ballad singers. – fromEncyclopedia of Indian Literature vol.1, edited by AmareshDutta.
There are two troupes of RavanaChhaya presently in Odisha -Ravana Chhaya Natya Sansad from Odasha village and Sri Ram Chhaya Gabeshana Parishad of Khamar both from Anugul district. Guru Kathinanda Das(1900 -1986) was one of the most prolific artists of the form and had been a mentor to both the present troupes which are led by Guru Khageswar Pradhan and Dr. GourangaCharan Dash respectively.
Guru Kathinanda Das was not an original inhabitant of Odhasha. His father Basudevdas(? – 1942) had settled there from Seepur a village 21 km away. Basudevdas’ father Hrushi Champattiray was an inhabitant of Domal village of Dhenkanal and married in Seepur. The king of Dhenkanal had given someone from his family the title ‘Champattiray’ after seeing a soulful rendering of Ravana Chhaya. Since Basudebdas did not have any children in Seepur he came and settled himself at Odhasha village.
Ravana Chhaya had flourished in Seepur during the patronage of the Kings of Talcher. The Bhata community who knew the art of shadow puppetry was nomadic. It is believed that they have immigrated from Jajpur district or Puri district of Odisha. The Bhatas used to sing praises of the King and his Sepoy’s and beg for alms as their profession. The King of Talcher recruited some of them as musicians to entertain his subjects, gave them land in Seepur and asked them to settle down. These Bhatas used to roam around villages at the time of festivals, auspicious days, and marriages and perform shadow play.
There were three troupes of Ravana Chhaya at the end of the nineteenth century at Seepur. These were owned by HrusiChampattiray, Chintamoni Das and JogendraDas’ family. Jogendra Das then left for Athamallik(a nearby town in Talcher) for some unknown reason may be family dispute. Along with Jogendra,KritarthaRai, Purnachandra Das, Natabar Ray also left for Athamallik. They started RavanaChhaya there under the guidance of Jogendra Das. The troupe disbanded during the 1930s. The puppets were not taken care of and were ruined.
Basudevdas’s daughter Kanchan was given in marriage to Baishnab from Seepur. The old troupe in Seepur had fragmented so Baishnab joined his father in law Basudev’s troupe. Kathinanda Das who was the son of Basudevdas along with now Baishnab gathered men from the Dhobi community, barbers and farmers and started their RavanaChhaya troupe.
JeevanPani writes in his book RavanaChhaya, “This rare form of shadow play was on the verge of extinction when the documentation unit of the Akademi discovered it in a remote village in April 1971. The only surviving RavanaChhaya puppeteer, Kathinanda Das, was one of the most neglected persons in the village. When the villagers saw us filming, photographing and tape recording his performance they were amazed.”
Maguni Charan Kuanar , rod puppeteer from Keonjhar , when speaking about guru Kathinanda Das mentions that he used to be a blind devotee of Rama and said everything around him was made by Rama. His deep love and devotion towards Rama was reflected in his rendition of the songs from Bisi (popularly known) Khuntia’s Ramayana. Every evening he would sit in the courtyard of his house with his tambourine and sing the songs.
After Guru Kathinanda Das’ death, many scholars are of the opinion that the puppets used by him were sold to foreign countries or are in private collections. Some of them also must have ruined because of neglect. Guru Kolha Charan Sahoo took leadership of the troupe in Odasha and was immensely supported by the villagers. Currently the troupe performs under the guidance of Guru Khageswar Pradhan.
Apparently all the puppets used today are new. Even the puppets that were the property , family heirlooms, of the troupes in Athamallik, Seepur have magically disappeared.