World Puppet Day fell on March 21 and the local celebrations for the day were held at the Independence Square last week, sponsored by the Cultural Department of Sri Lanka.

Although exhibits ranged from traditional marionettes, rod puppets, hand puppets and shadow puppets, the exhibition was not exactly a beehive of activity. With no more than half a dozen stalls there were only a few puppet enthusiasts roaming about, proving, indeed, that puppetry was a dying art.

However, the main stage performances that took place in the evening brought in more crowds. Performances included items by Ambalangoda traditional puppeteers, Shadow puppet shows, contemporary marionettes from the famous Cruzs and Mahadanamuththa and Modern Golayas by Power of Play.

“We use puppetry for communication,” says Power of Play, Artistic Director, Sulochana Dissanayake. Their Mahadenamutta and Modern Golayas use Indonesian puppets to discuss social problems such as HIV AIDS and dengue, giving old Mahadenamutta stories a new ring. They use a mixture shadow puppets, giant puppets and Indonesian puppets like their Mahadenamutta and Modern Golayas in their programs to spread social messages on how to work with HIV infected people.

“It’s an old art form, but the concept of discussing social problems is novel,” says Professional Consultant and Puppeteer, Upul Alwis. Gone are the days of Puwak Badilla, enter Puwak Badilli. Power of Play has been considerate enough to be gender equal and feminist. “The old stories portray Mahadenamutta as a naïve personality. But he and his new disciples have values, enjoys and promotes equality and have friends in both North and South,” says Upul.

Power of Play performances are unique for their interaction with the audience. “The audience is not a separate entity. They take part in the performance and the kids love it,” beams Upul.

Snuggled between the Power of Play stall and a shadow puppetry stall was the Anibal Akka, Amden, Jim Pappa and Cyanide of Always Breakdown fame. Their creator, Wijesinghe Kankanamge of Muppet Farm explained how he got into the business. “I’m a retired teacher and love to work with kids. My brother was into puppetry and I used to help him make the muppets.” The muppets are made using sponge, clothes and metal.

Muppet Farm has been in business for 30 years. Over the years Wijesinghe travelled to countries such as Korea and Malaysia learning about muppetry and incorporated what he learned to develop a style all his own. “Our frog is not the Sesame Street frog. It’s the local version.” And the local version croaked ‘Baka baka’ the Sri Lankan style to drive home the point.

Although the Muppet Farm is famous for the program Always Breakdown which was telecast on TNL TV in the late 1990s, Muppet Farm’s forte is children’s programmes using animal characters that kids instantly fall in love with, such as ants and frogs. In fact their Panchatantra series telecast on ITN ran into 20 successful episodes. “Even our political shows were satirical rather than defamatory, if not it would not be art, would it?” questions Wijesinghe.

Kosala Priyam Kumara of Gampaha Pruthuvi Arts Centre had brought along with him a few students of Gampaha Weliweriya Siri Siduhath Junior School where he works as an art teacher. “If I were to take them out of school in the official capacity, I’d have had to go through a lot of red tape. I’d have to write a letter requesting approval from the zonal education office. It’s easier to mark them absent and take them out on a personal capacity,” explained Kosala.

Kosala says that it was his father, Siri Kumarasinghe, who introduced shadow puppetry to Sri Lanka in 1996. “In fact, ours is the only shadow puppetry group in Sri Lanka.” Hence he was exposed to this rare form at the age of 10. He travelled to Indonesia on a scholarship and has also penned the book on puppetry ‘Kalpanika Athmaya’, which has chapters on propagation of puppetry and puppet making. His shadow puppets are made of animal skins. “The kind you make drums with,” explained Kosala. “Puppetry, if given the right kind of exposure would go far in the world. Kids are hooked on tabs and phones, but puppetry enhances creativity.”

Lal Gamvari from Matara is a puppeteer attached to the Traditional Puppet Art Museum, Dehiwela. He is the grandson of both Gamvari Podisirina Gurunnanse and Gamvari Loveneris another renowned puppeteer. Thus Lal was exposed to puppetry at the tender age of 12. Lal fondly remembers following his mentor Nalin Gamvari.

Lal revealed that the oldest puppet in the museum’s possession is the Gamarala, although new ones are still made using dried Kaduru timber. “All parts are built separate and joined using nails,” explained Lal. Same puppets are used to relate different stories. “Only the clothes change.”

Lal observed that although there were between 25 to 30 different groups engaged in art form during the golden age of puppetry, not many are still active. “Puppetry is a dying art,” he claims.
Wijesinghe Kankanamge of Muppet Farm said that much has changed since the 90s. “TV stations no longer care for muppet shows, it’s cheaper to bring down a cartoon and dub it.”
But not all hope is lost for muppetry. “Kids still love it. We see it in their eyes when we do programmes at schools,” said Wijesinghe who reiterated that a dying art like muppetry requires more exposure.

Kosala Priyam Kumara observed that puppetry lacked state patronage. “They hold a Puppetry Day in Colombo once a year and hardly anyone turns up. It’s a waste of state money,” complained Wijesinghe. He pointed out that such an event should ideally take place at village level where people are still interested in the art form. “This way, foreign artists can get to visit Sri Lankan villages and village kids get to make friends from all over the world,” he said.

Pics by Mushtaq Tasleem and Eshan Dassanayake

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