Kapil Dev Interview
Long before Gulabo Sitaabo came to be associated with a film, they were a popular puppet jodi entertaining the people of rural Uttar Pradesh for many decades. Cynics may say that's the only way one can give social currency to an ancient art form no longer relevant. But our man, Kapil Dev, will forever say, Puppetry Not Out! Puppetry is an ancient art form dating back to the 2nd Century BC. It was hugely popular in imperial India where kings would employ puppeteers in the royal court to sing paeans of worship in their honour.

 By Divyani Rattanpal

But this ain't no Royal Court. Kapil Dev is doing a puppet making workshop and theatre play at a hip Aaram Nagar venue for 6-12 year-olds. His audience may not include kings, but it has princes and princesses nonetheless; Kapil's puppets have managed to enthrall not just the kids, but also their urban, sophisticated and artistic parents.

His show, THE BIG BAD WOLF is a thoroughly entertaining puppet performance. It combines two classic English stories: Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs. Having two popular English stories as its core material - and not a rural Hindi folk tale - makes the puppet play more palatable to the patrons of the alternative arts space. Try naming the piece, Ek Bura Bhediya and then see if the parents turn up with their kids!

Interestingly, the script for The BIG BAD WOLF landed in the hands of Kapil eight years back, courtesy a famous Swedish puppeteer, Gustaf Kull, who wanted this story to be done in India. Kapil teamed up with Reshma Shetty, a theatre practitioner, and together, the duo adapted it to Hindi and brought the story to life. The level of puppetry in the performance, too, is very stylish and aesthetic, especially the oinky pigs and the sinister-looking, grey-coloured wolf head.

It's through the efforts of skilful, artistic and deeply passionate puppeteers that puppet theatre is slowly becoming more contemporized.

After a presentation of the play for a storytelling session at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum (in South Mumbai) was met with a good response, they set out on a journey to reach more and more children during the summer holidays. This is the second year of their collaboration with Harkat, the Aaram Nagar (suburban Mumbai) venue. The duo work with actors in combination with puppets for the performance.

The earliest mention of Puppet theatre in India has been in a Tamil classic Silappadikaaram, which dates back to the 2nd century BC. In fact, the puppetry tradition of India is one of the oldest in the world. Even the words sutradhar, so common in Indian theatre, means holder of strings, quite akin to the marionette style of puppetry.

Every region has its own well established puppetry form, which mirrors the culture of that region. The Kathputlis of Rajasthan with their lehenga-cholis, Rabana Chhaya from Odisha for its shadow puppetry, the highly stylised Gombeyatta from Karnataka, and the technically intricate Bommalattam from Tamil Nadu. The possibilities of storytelling combining theatre, puppetry, dance and music are endless.

But the biggest problem facing puppetry is that there aren't enough equipped people to explore those possibilities. Kapil says there is a lack of talent which is willing to invest time and effort in puppet theatre.

Kapil's journey started as a child actor in theatre, who was equally interested in set design. Someone encouraged him to meet Dadi Pudumjee, a leading puppeteer and founder of the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, who was also awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his work in puppetry.

"Dadi Pudumjee told me to come to his studio. When I went there, I found the work so mazzeydaar, that I kept going."

There, Kapil helped design puppets, for which he would be given a modest stipend. He spent two years with Pudumjee. It took him one year just to learn how to make a puppet. By the second year, he had also learnt to script and direct plays.

"Puppetry is an art form which is an amalgamation of a lot of art forms: be it sculptures, costumes, makeup, scripting, etc. Scripting for puppetry is also very different, as we have to work with the limitations of the puppet."

As part of Pudumjee's puppet theatre, Kapil got the chance to work with leading satellite TV channels that were just mushrooming in the 90s and featured puppet segments as part of the programming.

In 1990, Kapil joined the second batch of the Theatre In Education Company (TIE) program of National School of Drama. The TIE Company consisted of a group of actor-teachers working with and performing for children. At NSD, Kapil was taught by Barry John.

Thereafter, for 11 years, Kapil taught at the Salaam Baalak Trust, a fitting place for a man to work who ran away from home as a child and came to Delhi.

"Puppetry is great for NGOs or for any awareness drive. It's a great medium to discuss social awareness issues." Kapil is proud to mention that puppeteers drive social change through their art form.

In 2002, Kapil was offered a scholarship to get a diploma at the DI Dramatiska Institutet Stockholm, Sweden, in puppet theatre production. But back home, Kapil finds an appalling state of puppetry education. "There is no institute for puppetry in India. We keep doing puppet workshops so that we can find the next generation of puppeteers," he says.

As for whether there's a lack of market for puppetry shows in urban India, Kapil isn't in two minds at all. He's certain the audience wants to see it, if it gets the chance. "Why, THE LION KING musical, with Jack Galloway as puppet supervisor, was such a big hit on Broadway!" he declares.

However, in Mumbai, there's hardly any regular theatre group devoted to puppetry. "Everyone wants to show their face. People don't want to get into puppetry," says Kapil.

Kapil has so far performed at prestigious venues like the Indian Parliament, in front of noted personalities like Sonia Gandhi.

He remembers a funny incident, as well: "Once we we performing a play called MAIN BHI BACHCHA HOON at YMCA, Sattal. It was an open amphitheatre and we had a dog puppet. So the actor was mimicking the sound of a dog, when all of a sudden, a real dog came and was about to jump on the puppet-actor. I told him to freeze or the dog would have jumped at him!"

Kapil believes Mumbai can be a wonderful creative hub for contemporary puppet theatre. Recently, a show puppeteer Anurupa Roy did at Prithvi was house full.
"Business will only grow when the audience values the craft."

Kapil is hopeful that a lot can happen in Mumbai, if only puppeteers like him meet the right people.

*Divyani has worked as a journalist for The Quint, where she was also among the Founding Team members. While there, she also hosted and produced a podcast and fronted several standups. She's also worked for The Times of India group. She's now a theatre and film actor.

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