Ballet of the dolls

Mumbai University’s new certificate programme in puppetry is arguably the first-of-its-kind in India. Course director Meena Naik tells Prachi Rege how to pull strings effectively.

Mumbai University’s new certificate programme in puppetry is arguably the first-of-its-kind in India. Course director Meena Naik tells Prachi Rege how to pull strings effectively.

On a makeshift stage, two life sized fibre dolls are engaged in an animated conversation. Aesthetically designed, the puppets have expressive eyes and beautiful eye-catching colors. They dance, they gyrate, all the while conveying meaningful messages about sexual abuse of children to the stupefied audience, engrossed in the visual treat unfolding before them. And who is their audience? A room full of children in the age group of 8 to 10 years.

As the show, organised by the Forum Against Child Sexual Exploitation (FACSE), ends, the little angels gather around Meena Naik, puppeteer and script writer of the livelyshow. She is also the director of Mumbai University’s certificate course in puppetry, arguably the first of its kind in the country. "It is only after they see the show that many children become aware that what they think is a normal touch is actually an activity meant for sexual stimulation of the perpetrator," says Naik, a puppet expert of three decades.

One of the most ancient forms of entertainment, the art of puppetry in India lacks wholehearted patronage. Poor promotion has driven this beautiful form of edutainment to almost extinction. None however, can overlook the fact that it can be used as a powerful tool to make scathing commentary on contemporary social and political themes. Acknowledging this, Mumbai University has launched an eight-month certificate course in puppetry. Apart from teachers, social workers, psychologists and artists, anyone who may want to make use of this creative medium in their respective professions, may join this course.

Naik expects creatively inclined and artistic people to sign up. Teachers and social workers, she says, may be equipped to design their own puppets and script their own edutainment shows for students, to disseminate knowledge about pressing issues concerning children like sexual abuse, child trafficking, sex education and psychological trauma, and environment and heath related problems. The certificate programme will be conducted at Rachna Sansad in Mumbai every weekend. The coursework has two components- practical and theory with 70 and 30 marks allotted to each respectively.

Along with Naik, other professional puppeteers will serve as visiting faculty. Training will be focused on making attractive life size puppets using scrap material like bottles, empty matchboxes and sponge, cardboard and fibre. Manipulation of puppets using a rod, string, hand or shadow, and writing issue-based scripts with a creative peg will also be taught in this course. At the end of the course students will have to prepare a skit using puppets on a topic of their own choice.

Puppetry has better application in classrooms, says Naik. "Teachers may use it to help children memorise poems, simplify difficult concepts in a subject. They may use it to entertain kids by depicting Panchatantra stories or fairy tales," explains Naik, who has conducted puppet shows on Ramayana and Mahabharata worldwide.


Eligibility: SSC or equivalent examination

Duration: Eight months (Part Time) Saturdays and Sundays, 10am to 4pm

Fees: Rs 30,000

Medium: English, Hindi & Marathi

Puppetry History

The ancient puppet artistes in the country invariably narrated stories of powerful emperors and heroes through their art. In rural settings, they used this creative form for political satires. In south India it was used to unfold the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. In the state of Kerala, even today shadow puppet is a ritual performed every year during a temple festival for a specified duration.
With the progress and development of civilization, the mysticism connected with traditional puppetry slowly started to fade which was replaced with an element of entertainment. Slowly, this art form emerged from the precincts of the temple and villages to reach out to the outside world performing on various social and contemporary themes in Indian towns and cities.

In Maharashtra there are two types of puppetry forms: String puppetry and shadow puppetry.
String puppets are small and they do not have legs. They have only two joints at the shoulders and manipulating strings are attached to the head and hands of the puppet. Themes or episodes from Ramayana area narrated through folk tunes. This art form is almost on the brink of extinction in the state.

Prevalent only in the Ratnagiri district on the West Coast of Maharashtra, the shadow puppets are delicately coloured with vegetable dyes. They do not have jointed limbs. They too are used to narrate episodes from Ramayana using folk tunes. This form is also in the brink of extinction.


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