Saturday, March 26, 2011

Puppets of Rafi Pir

"Life is crazy,” says Rohana Deva. “People are actors and their life is a stage…and love…is mad.” Deva is quoting the song that his puppet character has been singing on stage. The character, a king, is pensive and performs alone on stage. He is a doll about a hundred years old, with only a slight chip on his nose, but that cannot be seen from far off in the audience. He wears a royal costume of black with gold embroidery, and his eyes are painted and elongated in the same way as the eyes of all Sri Lankan kings are.

He and his friend Wijesiri Ganwary, are both in Lahore to perform in the Rafi Peer Folk Puppet Festival, where guests from India and Norway will also be coming, not counting the indigenous folk puppeteers of Pakistan.

But though Deva’s and Ganwary’s puppet show was all in Sinhalese, it did not stop families from filtering in, or children to watch wide-eyed and intrigued by the moving marionettes which are controlled by strings from behind the screen. Deva says that the dolls are made out of the wood of a special kind, from the Aduru tree, which makes the most durable doll. Besides the king, another is around 50 years old. Each show expresses a different story, only language constraints in Pakistan were the reason that these stories could not be understood in their entirety, but the smooth movements of the dolls were wonderful to watch, almost like watching a mime and trying to understand the body language.

The magic of a puppet show can never die, especially for young audience. The movement of a puppet or a wooden marionette may be slightly monotonous for the adult viewer, but children with their vivid imaginations and impressionable minds, will absorb all the intricacies that are associated with the puppet theatre – an art that is slowly dying in Pakistan.

RP Theatre has therefore, and especially in remembrance of Rafi Peerzada, the theatre artist himself, organised this festival. “Theatre of puppets is a dying art, with no recognition being given to our local folk puppeteers,” says Tasneem Peerzada, the media person for the RP Theatre Group. “This festival has a special focus to try and revive these puppeteers so that the art survives.”

Meanwhile, audience members appreciated the acts and said that it was a good way to have their children entertained. “We often have no place to take our children for entertainment purposes. It is good that my children can see theatre like I used to see when I was a child,” says Nadia. Other parents also supported the idea and said that though the place was far but was worth it. “My children are very young, but they love stage performances and I can see that they are often mesmerized by the lighting and the movement,” says a father of two.

The children and even people of diverse age groups in the audience enjoyed the Sri Lankan performance, in which a kind of a witch doctor, dressed in tribal clothes, a large canine jutting out from one side of his mouth descended onto the stage, carrying two sticks lit with fire. A somewhat dangerous business, with the flames quite large, however Deva and Ganwary helped the character perform well, making it dance to and fro, screaming and yodeling in a strange aborigine manner. A smoke machine filled the stage with smoke, and perhaps it was this strange incarnation, whooping and shouting war cries behind smoke that had the audience glued to their seats.

Deva explains that his theatre known as Thidora also helps disabled children. “Theatre is a form of using body language and speech, and by helping disabled people to be associated with us. We help them with speech therapy and also how to use their bodies without feeling ashamed.”

The term Thidora means the mind, and the body in Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, four types of theatre performances prevail including Thoil (devil mask dance – the kind the character in the smoke filled stage was depicted in), Socaree, Nadagam and Kolum. Meanwhile Kherati Ram Bhat, his son, Ramesh and his grandson, Sawai, represented India in their performance of various dances. Khairati and his two predecessors hail from Jaisalmer, Rajesthan. He terms himself as a ‘dhaage kathputliwala’ (or a string manipulator), also using wooden dolls as marionettes.

He told the story of ‘Bohurupee’ from Indian folktales, shape-shifting changelings who could transform their appearance in seconds. Accompanied by sharp whistles in rhythm with the dholak beat and the narrator’s catchy song, the movements of all his puppets, including the Rajhasthani dancer, the jockey on a horse and all other characters who represented the folk dances of Rajhastan enthralled the audience. Bhat’s son Ramesh comments on how well received he felt in Lahore. “I have been impressed by Pakistanis and what nice people they are,” he says. “I look forward to returning in the future.”

Colourful as the festival was, the lives of today’s puppeteers is difficult to say the least, especially for those who have specialized in this art and cannot merely shift fields so easily.

“We make around 1200 per day, but with a family of 28 people, all living together, it becomes so expensive,” says Ramesh. “We try to make ends meet but things are so expensive. The basic necessities like vegetables and flour and milk are so expensive that we manage to scrape through. We also don’t know much of any other art and neither are educated enough to shift work
so easily.”


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