A Puppeteer Speaks : Interview with Michael Meschke

Professor Michael Meschke, the eminent practitioner of puppet theatre and Director, Marionetteatern in Stockholm, Sweden, has devoted a lifetime to the practice and research of puppetry. Apart from giving many performances, he has participated in seminars and published a book on puppet theatre with IGNCA. He also helped to set up a small puppet theatre in IGNCA Campus. While on a visit to IGNCA recently, he talked to Sudha Gopalakrishnan about his ideas on this art form in the context of IGNCA’s conceptual plan for a national puppet threatre.

SG. Prof. Meschke, you have been associated in a major way with the puppetry project of the Centre. What is the purpose of your present visit?

MM. Well, basically I am an artist and it is a great pleasure for an artist to serve a culture other than his own. I feel mentally, or you might say, spiritually, attached to India. I am here now on a certain mission, and a very fulfilling one at that. I was asked by the IGNCA to be a Consultant for the construction of a puppet theatre within the frame of the building project of IGNCA. I feel that it is extraordinary that IGNCA considers to do this, that is, honour puppet theatre by giving it a due place. To many mind, it is a unique attempt, and there is only one person who thought about it – and that is Kapila Vatsyayan. I don’t think anywhere else on earth that people with initiative and vision would dedicate so much attention to this marginal art of puppet theatre.

MM.  Puppetry is an art form which is well developed in India, more than in any part of the world. You can see that the various regional styles and local traditions characteristic to Indian culture are well reflected in the puppet theatre of India as well – for example, puppets from Andhra Pradesh are totally different from the shadow puppets of Kerala and Orissa, and so on. If a puppetry map of India is made, it will be as rich as a puppetry map of a complete continent. Besides this, often these arts are performed in the remote areas difficult to reach. The troupes have problems of travel, of performance and sometimes of survival itself. It has therefore become more important now to preserve and encourage these threatened traditions. They form a part of the cultural heritage of a nation. It is often too late before the people discover that they cannot do with out it.

SG. How is the so-called contemporary theatre’ different from traditional theatre? What is its relevance in today’s world?

MM. ‘Tradition’ has several definitions. But the one I like the best is given by the philosopher S.C. Malik, who defines it as tradition of ‘creation now’. It means that tradition is not something static or unchangeable. It is transformed and gets renewed with time, because it is handled with a creative and re-constructive spirit. The IGNCA is intended to become a space for al Indian tradition, living tradition – to be presented , developed and encourage. Perhaps encouraged by the instance of the avant garde puppet theatre, that is the contemporary theatre.

I do not like to make any distinction between traditional and contemporary, because as I have just explained, every tradition is absolutely contemporary. So instead of contemporary, we shall call it avant garde or researched puppet theatre. This theatre uses inspiration from other fields and contemporary thought and technology in order to find new expressions and new ways based on old traditions. Puppet theatre may either be used for its own sake or as an instrument of communication. It may be to communicate a message to an audience or in between the audience. The message may be a classical one, like from the epics, like the Ramayana, or may be connected with a present immediate reality. For example, for Europeans to call for a stop to the war in Bosnia. Today’s puppet theatre is a rapidly growing art, especially in Latin America and Europe. It is handled by young exponents and is often of such height standards that while watching one is hardly conscious of the medium itself. This aspect is common to all art that that level, I suppose.

SG. Do you find a revival of puppet theatre in India?

MM. In Delhi my ex-student Dadi Pudumjee is holding up the banner of renewal, which is also rooted in tradition. I have seen a show which he has made inspired by the Rajasthani tradition, where he mixes big puppets with small puppets creating a fusion of traditional elements and using them in a contemporary way. I liked his approach as he aptly represented renewal from the traditional point of view.

SG. What are the techniques in puppet theatre?

MM. There are one thousand techniques in puppetry. There are the classical traditions of shadow puppets, string puppets, glove and rod puppets. But every inventive artist creates how own technique. They may be a combination of various techniques, like mixing living actors with puppets 3 metres high, and also perhaps with puppets 10 cm high. All this is adopted to the message which is rendered in the most beautiful manner.

SG. Could you tell us something about your life and how you began with puppet theatre?

MM. I could only tell you fragments of it. I am the sone of a priest and my mother is a musician. I found my own niche in this area of puppet theatre and went on pursuing this. I wanted to make a marionette theatre, and in 1958 launched a permanent theatre called the Marionette Theatre in Sweden. Here shows for children are held every day. I broke away from conventional methods in puppetry very early in the middle of the century. The first thing that I changed was the prejudice that puppet players must be hidden, so I pulled down all the curtains from the stage and had a big open stage where you could watch the puppet players visibly.

I first thought my invention was the first of its kind, and later went on to discover that the Japanese were doing it for 500 years and the Indians may be for thousands.

The illusion here is not created by hiding the human body or by the colourful presence of the puppets. For example, in Japan when you watch a puppet playing a woman weeping because her husband has left her, her action is spellbinding to the audience because they forget to see that there are three huge men manipulating the puppet. The illusion is created by the intensity of emotion, thought and message. I also brought about a change in the size of puppets. Until then puppets in a play had been of only one size. I mixed the sizes, using puppets of all sizes and proportions in one and the same show.

SG. But what is so special about puppet theatre? Do we not have living actors enough for the stage?

MM. Puppet theatre is a separate, independent art with rules of its own. It is not better than ordinary theatre and neither less important. It is like a different instrument with its own characteristics of use which are very simple to understand. For example, a string puppets can fly in air, while human actors cannot. Since the puppet theatre is deeply anti-authoritarian, as the actors are small, the children open up to it more easily. They identify with the puppets and can talk and have serious discussions with them.

A puppet is also connected with masks. A mask is a synthesis of many faces and the essential, an extraction of the many possibilities condensed into a single expression. The more expressive a mask is, the less is one likely to feel interested. The less expression there is, the more the space in the mind for you to participate as the creator. This is one of the greatest qualities of puppet theatre because nobody is so stupid to go to a puppet show believing that they will see live puppets.

SG. How does it seem to be so alive when the puppets are actually non-living? How does it happen?

MM. Fifty per cent of this happens because of the presence in the face of the mask and other fifty per cent is the part of the illusion created in your own heart and head, by your own capacity to imagine. It is extraordinary to see people coming to me after the show and asking – “how did you move the mouth and close the eyes?” And I say, “my puppet has a stiff mask. There is no possibility to move the mouth”—But I saw it in the show! I am sure! I saw the puppet weep!” “Ah, because you wept inside yourself. ” I have explained a lot about this in my book.

SG. But why a puppet theatre in IGNCA?

MM. Firstly because there is no central place to provide the artists an opportunity to perform together, to interact, exchange techniques and find stimulation. And a country like India which has such varied traditions in puppetry, this is an urgent need to have a national puppet forum. Secondly, the puppet theatre of the IGNCA is very rightly built into its larger vision, being the lifestyle studies programme which has already been presented in various forms in Delhi. The puppetry programme will make one of the necessary components of the lifestyle studies. This art form is deeply rooted in the popular tradition, popular thinking and popular expression. It is also very closely related to the mask theatre, other theatre form s and plastic arts.

SG. How do you plan IGNCA’s puppet theatre?

MM. My mission is to suggest conditions to realise, in the best way possible, a puppet theatre for Indian artists as well as for visiting foreign artists in the field, and related fields. What I wish to do is to try and make something within the classical theatre. However there are too many of them. So we shall try to create a milieu, a space, for the future. This means that a greater flexibility is required. If the seating arrangement is fixed in one way there is no flexibility. We will use the room as an entire place and we may change the audience from play to play. It means that when you enter you will not have the impression of entering a traditional theatre but perhaps into a village square with elements of nature present and with great simplicity. There are no false elements or faked settings. In this, let us say, opening in a forest or a square which you enter there will be facilities to arrange the traditional seatings and stage, as well as making a huge stage in the centre with the audience sitting around in four blocks. Then you can make a round stage, a crossroad stage with the audience sitting in four groups. This can be used for other purposes.

Whenever we have renewal it starts by throwing out old systems because an artist needs emptiness, both outside as well as in his mind. When I create something, I want it to be a total creation. So I am starting from the very beginning….



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