The power of the puppet
Storytelling has been part of the development of society since the ancient Greeks. Over time, many storytellers and storytellers have adopted various props and methods to make their storytelling both innovative and interactive. The puppet was one of these mediums.
Manipulated by a puppeteer, who generally remains in the shadows, the puppets used in this art are nothing less than actors in a theatrical production. Characters such as “The Lonely Goatherd” yodel in The Sound of Music or the entire Muppets have elevated puppetry to international level. But India is not to be outdone, with its rich tradition of puppets. The list of local puppeteers includes Varun Narain (52) from South Delhi, who has been in the profession since 1994.
Narain developed a passion for this art at the age of nine. “I used to make finger puppets out of cloth and paper, and put on puppet shows for my family. The warmth and encouragement of my family is the foundation of my confidence today,” he shares.
love in the first act
Narain’s rendezvous with art began while he was pursuing a master’s degree at Jamia Millia Islamia’s Mass Communication Research Center. At the time, he often experimented with puppets and mass media. Creating puppets from papier-mâché, fabric and recycled waste, Narain’s figures are a representation of his acute observations of human and plant behavior. Narain – he graduated in Botany from Hansraj College, Delhi University – uses his knowledge of plant structures to inspire the characters he designs.
He is often influenced by Indian master puppeteer Ranjana Pandey, who specializes in the areas of mental and physical abilities in adults and children, and Neville Tranter from the Netherlands.
“I watched the puppet awareness performances of her [Pandey] at Janmadhyam NGO here in Delhi and it has influenced my work a lot,” shares Narain. His actions are therefore not inspired by fairy tales. He introduces a range of social topics such as gender and sexuality issues into his acts, and aims to break the stereotypes that surround them.
“I hope to educate my audience about the diversity of life so that everyone can be more inclusive. With puppets, these issues become non-threatening and effective communication becomes possible,” he says.
An inclusive art form
Considering the topics he covers, many might categorize Narain’s shows as more suited to mature audiences. For example, her number “Bowl of Peals” is an adaptation of the ballet Swan Lake with an LGBTQIA+ theme; ‘Liquid Rainbows’ explores the idea of erotic art and pornography; “Giselle ki Kahani” is a country adaptation of the 19th century French ballet Giselle. Narain emphasizes that he tries to develop his acts to cater to a mixed audience.
“I believe that children today have evolved and adults have a lot to learn from them. I also believe that adults are children who have forgotten who they are. Remembering this helps make the world happier,” says Narain.
Specializing in interactive puppetry, he adds: “When a puppet character interacts with a human being, something very amazing happens. In my experience, adults and children pay attention without being distracted or becoming self-conscious. They are able to reflect on what the character said even after the interaction ended, and this led to gradual change.
Currently, Narain is working with poet-poet Shaad Qureshi on projects where they explore the similarity between “plant flavor and human poetry”.
With characters such as “Ginger” and “Cocoa” being his current favorites, Narain believes this show will “take those puppet characters to a whole new level.”
THE CONTAINMENT PROJECT
During the first lockdown in 2020, Narain presented his first virtual show ‘I am a Plant’. With their co-performer in a different physical space, the duo performed a 40-minute show for international audiences.
“It’s an important memory for me and the evolution of my art. It was a strange step and we discovered a new way to perform in today’s world,” he shares.