Those who feel the Generation Next is indifferent to traditional Indian ethics, values and culture were proved way off the mark by more than 300 students drawn out from some of the best schools in Chennai. Saturday saw them sitting enthralled and watch Sita Kalyanam (The Marriage of Sita) , a Bommalattam (puppetry) presented by a group of folklore artists from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. The puppets, the dance , the music and the artistry were a new experience for the students who are brought up in an environment of rock music and more at home with internet games.
“I never knew Ramayana had such wonderful stories in it. What I liked most was the way the marionettes danced and spoke. They looked like original human beings,” Prem Kumar, an eighth standard student from Saraswathi Vidyalaya, told The Pioneer after the show. For him, the entire show was a revelation. “I liked everything about it. In fact I felt I was watching a movie,” said Kumar when what was so unique about the show.
Lingesh, a sixth standard student from The Grove Public school, said he would like to see all kinds of puppetry shows hereafter. “The scene depicting the killing of Thadaka was well depicted,” he said. It was not only students who thronged in to watch the show. There were many from the glitterati world of Chennai, many of them seeing Bommalattam for their first time.
The smart auditorium of the C P R Environmental Foundation in the fashionable Alwarpet area had the looks of an interior village in Tamil Nadu. There were no sofas or chairs for the spectators. They had to sit flat on the floor though aged people including this writer were given the luxury of a bench. It was entertaining from the word go.. A team of four puppeteers made the three feet tall marionettes dance in synchronisation with music and dialogue.
The show began with propitiating Lord Vigneswara with the sutradhar singing the hymn Gajaananam Bhootha.. which is enjoyed by the Lord who blesses him as well as the audience. The Sutradhar in his introductory speech peppered with local flavour gave an insight into the art form. Following the introduction by the Sutradhar, Sita presents a Bharatnatyam in the typical Pandhanalloor style which would have put professional danseuses in shadow. Sita’s dance and her garlanding Dr Nanditha Krishna, who organised the Bommalattam as part of the International Ramayana Festival brought the auditorium roof down.
Interestingly, the Bommalattam in chaste Tamil was presented by Sourashtrians who have made Tamil Nadu their home for the last 500 years. They migrated to Tamil Nadu from Gujarat to escape the wrath of the Islamic invaders from the west who wanted them to convert to Islam. The Maratha royalty which ruled the Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu offered them asylum and since then the Sourashtrians consider this as their home state. They might have forgotten Gujrati but not the culture and traditions of their ancestors as well as their motherland. Bommalalttam could reach its zenith and get wide acceptance because of the efforts by the Sourashtrians.
No festivals and celebrations in rural Tamil Nadu could be said to be complete without Bommalattam. The enthusiasm of three families in Kumbakonam, which sustains this art form through generations, have taken Bommalattam to new heights. “We tell stories from the epics through Bommalattam. Right now we have a collection of more than 50 stories in our repertoire. It is for the organisers to select the story,” said T S Murugan (42), director, Sri Murugan Sangeetha Bommalatta Sabai of Kumbakonam. His is a ten member troupe with 12 marionettes for each show. The marionettes are operated by five puppeteers with strings tied to their hands and head. The movements of their fingers and heads make the marionettes dance and sing . Effective lighting, colour of costumes, and the simple but aesthetically designed stage make watching Bommalattam a refreshing experience. “I felt I was watching a well-made film. There was no irritant anywhere and it turned out to be visual treat,” said Srinivasan, who took a day’s leave to watch the show.
In villages, Bommalattam is performed only in the evenings. “There are stories like Vinayaka Puranam, Anjaneya Puranam and Bhakta Prahlaad which are in demand. Though we had invitations from countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Malysia, we couldn’t make the trip because of local commitments,” said Sankaranathan (85), Murukan’s father. Sankaranathan was taught puppetry by his father Mani Iyer.
What could be the reason behind the ever growing popularity of this ancient art form which finds mention even in Thirukural, the work on which the DMK chief Karunanidhi swears day in and day out? “It is simple. All of us are puppets dancing to the tunes of the Master who is sitting up there in the skies. It is a reflection of what we see in every day life,” said Sankaranathan.
No wonder.. Bommalaattam simply rocked the Chennai audience.