Oral History in Style

Friday, January 23rd, 2015


Friday, January 16th, 2015.Evening, 10 minutes to 6. Location, Dasheri Auditorium, National Centre for the Biological Sciences, Bangalore.  People of all ages, genders and nationalities are filing in, looking for seats in a nearly-full auditorium. Those who don't find a suitable one offering a good view, shrug and decide to sit on the sloping aisle. Once they have settled down, they examine the set-up on the stage – a translucent white screen stretched onto a frame that is bound from the remaining sides with a navy blue cloth. Through the screen, at the top, they can see three light bulbs peeking through permitting them to observe the performers as they prepare to display their art. The audience is abuzz with anticipation. What are we waiting for? A Puppet Show! The Mahiravan Charitra – an untold story from the Ramayana.

This performance, which was curated by the Antara Artists Collective, was in the style of a traditional Indian art form called 'Tolu-bommal-ata' (translated literally into English as 'Leather Puppet Drama'). In accordance with the theme of “Boundaries, Politics and Narratives”, the artists – Shinde Anjaneyalu and his family, from Dharmavaram, a village in the Anantapur District of Andhra Pradesh – narrated a little-known story from the Ramayana, in which Ram and Laxman, the “heroes”, are kidnapped as part of Ravana's plot. Now it is the rescuers who have to be rescued.

Each character in the story is represented by a life-size puppet made from goat-skin leather, painted intricately in various colours. They are slapped onto a white cloth screen by the performers, who manipulate them deftly to give them personality – for example, the puppet of Hanuman is loosely moved around and spun several times, in order to emphasize his ape-like nature, and Sujiimuka (viz. 'needle-nose'), one of Ravana's brother's cronies, has a long nose that can be wiggled about for comic relief. It is astounding how these puppets, whose expressions cannot be changed because their faces are permanently painted and cannot be controlled, can express emotions and attitudes merely through the body language the puppeteer enforces, and by the tone of the voice actors' dialogue. The puppet has its own life on stage, and conveys ideas to the audience in a way that no live actor could. The puppets' movements are set to music, the only “scripted” part of the play. The singers take on a dual role as voice actors while the music stops, and most of the dialogue is improvised. The performers are no longer themselves when they represent a character. They become the character and speak as the character would, giving authenticity to the characters and the situation. The dialogue was in Telugu, the native place of the artists, and although I, like several members of the audience, am not fluent in the language, thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the performance.

Puppetry is an extremely versatile medium of performance, simply because puppets straddle many boundaries: between the animate and the inanimate, good and evil, belief and illusion. To give you an example, all the puppets used in the drama were adorable, especially the 'villains', who in all our minds are “evil”. They all had human traits, and had a motivation to do what they did, which everyone in the audience I am sure empathized with. In fact, in the scientific community, too, one deals with several boundaries – right and wrong, ethical and unethical, funding and no funding! As scientists, it would be interesting to ask ourselves – what are the puppets in our world?

“In addition to being very entertaining, it was also a uniquely educational experience even to just listen to the language, and the music and songs and drama. NCBS is more than just a place full of labs working on scientific problems; it is a place where both science and art thrive, where art unifies scientists”, said one faculty member, referring to the show.


About NCBS Science and Society : Science and Society program aims build an exciting interdisciplinary program that seeks to understand the complex interactions of science, technology and the social world using historical, philosophical and artistic (visual/performing) approaches.

About the Winter Workshop on Oral History:
For a second consecutive year Science and Society program at NCBS collaborated with the Center for Public History to host a performance pertaining to the latter's winter workshop on Oral History.

About the Antara Artists Collective:
The Antara Artists’ Collective engages with extended practice in South Asian traditional arts. For more on contemporary issues faced by puppetry in India please visit:



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