The magic of puppetry and the passion and the hard labour involved in the tugging of strings come together in Lipika Singh Darai’s Backstage. Darai’s absorbing documentary looks at a range of performance styles in Odisha, from shadow puppetry to the use of life-sized figures to narrate episodes from the epics and folklore. The puppets are often heavy but you cannot let the pain show until the curtain drops, one of the artists tells Darai – an apt summary of the film’s efforts to examine the burden of legacy.

Backstage began to take shape way back in 2013, when Darai watched a government-sponsored programme of folk puppetry.

“While it’s considered a dying art form, I was watching something that has been performed and curated for me,” Darai observed. “This folk art form had already been displaced, in a sense. These artists had come from various parts of the state to perform on a stage for us city folk.”

Even as the Films Division production provides portraits of four sets of puppeteers and their individual concerns, Darai poses other questions. How do age-old folk traditions survive? Can a performance in the present day truly be called authentic, especially since the puppeteers tweak with the storylines and the design of the puppets? Does the art form lose its purity when it is adopted, or sometimes appropriated, by other castes and communities?

Backstage (2021). Courtesy Films Division.

Darai has previously directed the acclaimed Some Stories Around Witches, about witch-hunting in Odisha. Backstage, which was filmed over several years, returns to some of the locations explored in the previous film.

In Keonjhar, for instance, Darai meets Maguni Charan Kuanr, also known as Nundu. This acclaimed artist has personally crafted at least wooden rod-supported puppets and masks.

Meeting Kuanr was “magical” for Darai. She travelled to Keonjhar and randomly asked at the railway station if the rickshaw pullers knew Kuanr. One of them did.

“The first thing I noticed in his small house covered with orange creepers was a huge, beautifully carved wooden door that he had carved himself,” Dara recalled. “He was very warm and encouraging.”

Backstage (2021). Courtesy Films Division.

Several other puppeteers, each a repository of centuries of cultural knowledge, similarly opened out their hearts to Darai. During trips across the length and breadth of Odisha and totalling nearly 3,000 kilometres, Darai was keen on capturing their journeys and the incandescent beauty of their performances while always mindful of how they sustained themselves.

“The romanticised side is different from the reality,” the 36-year-old filmmaker said. “When we see a performance, do we really understand and contextualise the form and understand its relevance? Should we merely keep it alive or bring about change? I wanted material in place that would allow people to be free to find their own connections with the form.”

In between working on the film with cinematographer Indrajeet Lahiri and the rest of her crew, Darai made Some Stories Around Witches and co-scripted and edited the documentary In The Shadow of Time, which focuses on shadow puppeteers.

In The Shadow of Time.

The 85-minute Backstage, which was culled from close to 120 minutes of footage, was premiered at the Asolo Art Film Festival in Italy in August. Even as Darai prepares to send the documentary to other film festivals, the indefatigable Maguni Charan Kuanr has been hard at work.

“He is over 85, but he has made new puppets out of papier-mache, has lots of new ideas and is getting ready to perform in October,” Darai said. Whatever the challenges, this show must, and does, go on.

Lipika Singh Darai.

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