A little over a decade ago, Anurupa Roy was conducting a puppetry workshop with a group of rather reticent women in a Kashmiri village near Pahalgam. Decades of conflict had left the women with post-traumatic stress disorder – even if they didn’t know it. In a bid to draw them out, Roy asked them to wear masks as they shared their stories. This, she hoped, would allow the women to speak about things that would not normally articulate. She was right. Using puppets as their proxies, the women began to talk about their fears and hopes, their wish for more control within their homes and outside.

The Kashmir workshop helped Roy, the founder of the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust in Delhi, crystalise the concept she calls “puppets for change” – using puppets as a vehicle to highlight hidden truths and to talk about socio-political issues of the day.

“My studio is on the Delhi-Badarpur border,” said Roy. “I am surrounded by a community that is dealing with overcrowding, school dropouts [and] drug abuse. If I don’t talk about these issues sitting where I am, then what am I even doing?” Over the years, through theatre productions, workshops and teaching modules, Roy’s puppets have been “doing their bit in talking about what is not right, what is not acceptable”.

From next month, Roy will share this approach with students at a new school for puppetry that she helped set up in Delhi as a member of a worldwide puppeteers’ union. “There is a lot of puppet theory in the West, especially France and Germany,” she said. “But we need a discourse for India, where we have a living tradition in puppetry [that has passed down the generations] and modern puppetry [as well].”

Puppets for change

The 2005 Kashmir puppetry workshop that Roy organised was a result of an invitation from a group called Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace. Roy worked intermittently with the village women for around seven months. “They thought it was normal that they hadn’t slept in eight years,” she recalled. “Or that they had headaches all the time.”

Working closely with clinical psychologists in Kashmir, Katkatha and Roy invoked the spirit of the 14th-century poet Lal Ded and her concept of “sabr”, or patience. Lal Ded, a Kashmiri woman mystic in the 1500s, went through her own share of tribulations. Yet her vakhs, or verses, are about finding peace within. Roy and her team built upon the familiarity with Lal Ded to help their students talk about hardship and how to reclaim a sense of control of their lives. They gave the women masks, a puppet of Lal Ded and the opportunity to share their experiences.

“Some of them just wanted their kids to be able to go to school through the year,” said Roy. “A lot of the women wrote diaries and letters addressed to Lal Ded. The women could share them now because they were doing it with puppets and masks.”

Roy wanted to draw out stories of Kashmir that were not being heard in the mainstream media. “With the puppets, you can deconstruct a lot of narratives,” she said. “If you can deconstruct conflict in the realm of fantasy...you slowly start finding that it [starts happening] in the actual living space.”

Anurupa Roy. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana.

Katkatha’s origins

Roy, 41, was introduced to her art one Saturday, when a parent at Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, where she studied, put on a puppet show. Roy and several other students were fascinated by what they saw. They formed a club and were soon doing their own shows

When she was at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Roy joined the dramatics society. One day, she decided to put up a puppet show and was delighted to find that had been well received by “half the college”. “I kept thinking this is for children,” she said. “Yet here was a show that was being pitched to adults.” By the time she reached the third year of college in 1998, Roy had founded Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust.

With no formal puppetry training programmes in India, she sought the guidance of older puppeteers such as Ranjana Pandey, Varun Narain and Dadi Pudumjee, founder of The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust. She was pleased by how encouraging they were. She approached Narain, for instance, at Dilli Haat, a handicrafts bazaar in the capital, where he was staging a production, and he readily agreed to give her lessons.

In 2001, Roy enrolled at Sweden’s Dramatiska Institutet. The next year, she travelled to Italy to learn about traditional glove puppetry at the Scuola delle Guarattelle in Naples.

Roy returned to India in 2003 and though Katkatha, started conducting workshops and staging puppet theatre productions focussing on contemporary issues.

“The way I see it, the art form I practice is not mainstream,” she said. “That is a big advantage, because it doesn’t have the problems of mainstream art either.” With puppetry being on the fringes, she says, it gives her the freedom to delve into and build up these alternative narratives.

Learning with puppets

In 2013, Katkatha started developing experiential learning modules for teenagers. A recent example is Roy’s work with students of Shiv Nadar School in Noida to mark the centenary of the end of World War I.

Roy’s aim was to bring history alive for the students of class nine. She planned her classes around the experience of forced migration – an issue that has been in sharp focus again following the Syrian refugee crisis. “Most students aren’t interested in history,” she said. “The first reaction was predictable: ‘Why is she giving us more homework?’”

In August she conduct a two-week puppetry workshop with schoolchildren in Rajasthan’s Chirawa village, with water scarcity as the theme. The workshop culminated with a show by the children called The Story of Water.

“This [is] applied puppetry, where we use puppetry in many ways to engage with people,” said Roy. “Like we do a lot of work with young people, especially from very varied communities, right from urban slums to juvenile remand homes to schools.”

Social commentary

Roy’s last major production, Mahabharat, won the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards for best play and direction in 2017. It drew on the Karnataka leather-shadow puppet theatre tradition called the Silakayata, right down to its use of a vidushak, or narrator, who directly addresses the audience. “Traditionally, the vidushak can say something against the priest...against the king,” she said. “This is permitted in the contract that the community and the audience has with the performer.”

In some ways, the vidushak is a role in which Roy and her ensemble try and cast themselves. Puppets and puppeteers, Roy believes, are especially effective at social commentary because they are just outside the mainstream. A bit like a vidushak, who is free from the rules of society because of his role and ungainly appearance (bulbous nose, balding with a tuft of hair and a strange gait). In addition, transferring ideas and emotions onto an inanimate object evokes a different response from the audience than having two actors on stage dramatising the same story.

“In puppetry, we say the unsaid, the unseen and the unmoved,” said Roy. “The puppet is alive.” This, she said, helps create stories that are “very layered”.

Scenes from the 'Mahabharat'. Photos courtesy: The Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust.