ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 33

Puppets get a new tug of life

By Smriti Daniel

She comes with strings attached; and though her smile may be fixed, no one’s complaining because, as she spins in a glorious whirl of gaudy gold and red, you find yourself smiling right back at her. Her name is Saraswati, and Vipula Gamvari is her master.

Mr. Gamvari is one of 18 puppeteers brought together by Artlink 2007. Organised annually by the Alliance Francaise, Goethe-Institut, British Council and the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts, Artlink has over the course of several years regularly brought together Sri Lankan and European artistes, the former drawn from all over the island. The goal is, of course, to promote learning and interaction between those artistes who use the same medium but hail from different backgrounds.

Sadly enough, puppetry is a dying art, reveals Richard Lang, director of the Goethe-Institut. Going on to call it one of the most “spectacular art forms in Sri Lanka,” he stresses the challenges intrinsic to being a puppeteer in Sri Lanka. No longer included in most lists of tourist attractions, puppetry is undoubtedly expensive to pursue in addition to being largely unappreciated. Despite this, it is well worth preserving. This sentiment is shared by the 15 local artistes.

The art of puppetry is traditionally passed on from father to son, reveals Vipula Gamvari. As the head of the troupe, with many, many years of experience, Mr. Gamvari is well aware of the vulnerability of his art. It needs only one generation turning its back to bring a long tradition to its knees. Most troupes, it seems are mostly made up of members of a single family, each of whom are adept in all aspects of puppetry. They not only make their puppets from scratch, but can accompany a show on instruments or with their voices.

Puppets are expensive to make, says L.P. Vialet, one of the puppeteers. Made almost entirely of wood and often upto one metre in height, these puppets are heavy - a fact the audience remains entirely unaware of.

All the artistes at the workshop boast at least a decade long association with puppets. Professionals all of them, the Sri Lankan artists were well met in the 3 young European artists, namely Ewan Hunter from U.K, Alice Therese Bohm from Germany and Clément Peretjako from France. The three foreign artists clearly approach puppetry in a different vein – most notably in the absence of emphasis on ritual and tradition that marks Sri Lankan puppetry. Each of the three artists brought along puppets of their own. Belly dancers, jesters and simple marionettes made with scarves made for a wonderful comparison with local princes, demons and simple folk.

Watching them interact, it becomes obvious that the workshop is about “mutual enrichment” – with each group learning from the other. For instance, in the tradition of Sri Lankan puppeteers, Ewan explains how he and the others learnt to wear bells on their feet, and move their whole bodies, thereby “translating” their own movement into that of the puppets. In return, the visiting artists offer the locals a chance to rethink the way they approach their art – there is space for innovation and creativity.
“Art should move on – as life moves on, as the nation moves on,” says Mr. Lang, emphasising that puppetry as an art form remains relevant to Sri Lankan culture at large, and ideally should be incorporated into modern life more extensively. As a wonderfully expressive and direct medium, puppetry, says Clément, is ideal for conveying important messages. Alice adds that in its simplicity puppetry offers an “original way to the heart of the people.” Puppetry, it seems, is simply waiting to be discovered by the public.

At the heart of this quiet rebirth may lie the newly opened Piliyandala Puppet Art Centre. Plans are underway to offer those interested courses in puppetry, thereby improving the odds on the continued survival of this Sri Lankan tradition. The museum will be open six days a week, and features several well designed exhibits. Also spreading the limelight will be a spectacular show put on by the participating puppeteers.

To be held on Thursday, January 18, two Artlink sponsored puppet shows, one a school show at 10 a.m and the other for the general public at 6 p.m, will be staged at the Viharamahadevi Park open air theatre. The former is free, while the admission tickets for the latter are priced at Rs. 100 for adults and children free.

Featuring puppets doing everything from dancing with fire to having it out with their “spouses” in hilarious verbal dramas, the show will serve as a long overdue celebration of an ancient art form, intrinsic to the island’s cultural identity.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.