R V Ramani

Arts Research and Documentation
1999-2000

Grant Period: Over one year and six months

Chennai-based cinematographer and filmmaker, R V Ramani, has been researching shadow puppeteers in south India since late 1998. The research, partly funded by the South Zone Cultural Centre, Department of Culture, Government of India, helped him identify and meet puppeteers and their families. With support from IFA’s Arts research and Documentation programme, Ramani will document the lives and work of these itinerant entertainers on digital video. The resultant film, Ramani hopes, will be a celebration and dedication to the art of moving images, its original practitioners and community. His research has led Ramani to conclude that shadow puppet theatre in India was most prevalent and popular around three to four centuries ago. Tracing its roots to Maharashtra, Ramani says that with the expansion of the Maratha Empire under Shivaji, native shadow puppeteers migrated to south India seeking a fresh audience. Only a few practitioners of this art form remain today.

While most shadow puppeteer groups have now settled down, there are isolated groups that continue to lead a nomadic life – travelling, performing and adopting local languages and flavours. Interestingly, though many of these groups are now scattered across AP, Karnataka, TN and Kerala, using regional languages in their performance routines, most of the puppeteers speak Marathi at home. The puppeteers have a rich repertoire of songs and dialogues primarily based on stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Ramani notes intricate details regarding the making, preservation and transportation of the puppets. He believes that the entry and exit of the characters, dialogue, fights and dramatic sequences, songs, scene changes, and structure of the performance are all fantastic areas for study.

While acknowledging that cinema owes a lot to the shadow puppeteers, Ramani points out that paradoxically it is fundamentally responsible for the contemporary decline of shadow puppetry. The screen, for Ramani, is an interesting meeting-point for puppetry and cinema, and for this reason will serve as a leitmotif in his film. From his proposal it is evident that, for Ramani, there exists an artistic camaraderie between the shadow puppeteer and the serious filmmaker. Noting that both cinema and shadow puppetry have common origins in Maharashtra, Ramani will research the film archives for usable footage. While the film will also be an ethnographic record of the lives and work of the shadow puppeteers, Ramani is quick to point out that his documentary film will be largely impressionistic and subjective. Weaving the lifestyle of the community along with actual performances, Ramani plans to use sync sound extensively. The film might incorporate interviews with the puppeteers while also documenting special occasions like marriages, rituals and associated local village temple rituals. Shooting intensively in two schedules, Ramani will also address the urgent issue of a fast disappearing arts practice. A growing number of puppeteers no longer ply this trade due to the fact that there is little recognition and even less remuneration for their skills.