Puppet power

Saturday, 20 November 2010 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Mahadanamuthta comes to Colombo with Sulochana Dissanayake to provide a unique theatrical experience

How often does one come across a puppet that breathes? Probably never. But sitting in a living room full of beautifully carved, colourfully painted puppets I got the shock of my life when I realised that the wise old man standing on Sulo’s arm was breathing.First I thought it was a trick- mind’s eye playing its role but do a double take and whoa! It’s actually breathing! How often does one come across a puppet that breathes? Probably never.

By Cheranka Mendis

But sitting in a living room full of beautifully carved, colourfully painted puppets I got the shock of my life when I realised that the wise old man standing on Sulo’s arm was breathing. First I thought it was a trick- mind’s eye playing its role but do a double take and whoa! It’s actually breathing!

 Artistic Director of the soon to be performed theatrical experience Sulochana Dissanayake laughs, “Incredible isn’t it? These wooden rod puppets from Indonesia manage to communicate through their intricately carved features what the usual softer material puppets cannot. It manages not only to capture the attention of the people but make them actually listen since they are more human with hand controlled breathing etc.”

 East meets East

 The puppets custom made for Sulo’s upcoming performance ‘Mahadanamuththa’ whose stories almost all Sri Lankans have grown up with come all the way from Indonesia where such puppets titled as Wayang Goleks, are popular in Indonesian old folk art puppet theatre. Also known as 3D wooden puppets, the unique puppets have been created by the internationally acclaimed maestros under the supervision of Dalang Asep Sunandar Sunarya of Giri Harja III.

 The Wayang Goleks are known as one of the most sophisticated puppet forms in the world.

 Speaking on bringing Indonesian culture to Sri Lanka, Sulo says that her fascination grew when one of her lecturers brought in one of these Indonesian puppets to class. “I double majored in Economics and Theatre at Bates. It was at one of my theatre classes that I found myself fascinated by these magical creatures after which I spent six months studying classical puppets in South Africa and another six in Indonesia,” she said.

On her first impression of the puppets Sulo expresses, “It was like magic. It could do anything that humans can do. There is a huge power in the hands of a puppet and I wanted to learn more about it.”

 Being the lucky one that she is she met Dalang Asep Sunandar Sunarya, puppet expert in Indonesia through a mutual friend and furthered her studies apprenticing for him. While studying the art Sulo, always ready to experiment and introduce new concepts came up with the idea of bringing them to Sri Lanka and using the craft to bridge communication gaps in the system.

Universal art

“The power of puppets goes beyond their performance. They are incredible tools of communication that are being recognized world-wide as vital instruments to be used in education, public awareness, development, marketing and training. The power of retention when a message is delivered by a puppet far exceeds other forms of more conventional communications and advertising, and our premiere of this particular form of puppetry hopes that Sri Lanka will be exposed to a novel medium of communication. Corporates can use this form in innovative training and marketing, schools can tap it to educate and public/private institutions can project messages of health and development to masses - it works brilliantly for BTL advertising as well as mass communication,” she asserted.

 The power of a puppet is that it goes beyond gender, age, religion and ethnicities- in short it goes beyond other structures built by man to differentiate different parties in the society.  “It would transcend beyond these barriers. Probably the most attractive form of puppets is that they can dance, sing, fight, and tell stories without language acting as a barrier.” Sulo is confident that the art of puppets could be well used for advertising and marketing campaigns with better results than the ordinary mundane campaigns. “It is an out-of-the-box innovative method of communication. If Sri Lanka opens up and embrace it the way we hope they do, Sri Lankan art and culture will live and breathe for a longer period of time with international collaboration but also give the much needed competitive edge to the local businesses and economical ventures.”

 Folklore meets the modern world

 On ‘Mahadanamuththa’ performance itself Sulo is full of enthusiasm and joy. “The stories of Mahadanmuththa have been told and re-told by our parents and grandparents and have continued to entertain Sri Lankans for generations. These particular puppets will liven up these old characters in a novel and original medium that is foreign to most Sri Lankans.” Combining an age old story with an unknown art, Sulo is confident that this would be an instant hit. “It is a timeless story and this is a timeless art- there is no better way to introduce this art than through our very own Mahadanmuththa.”

 Premiering on 27 November, what Sri Lanka will witness is the old ‘golaya’s’ of Mahadanmuththa with a new twist. His new ‘golaya’s’ are relatives or friends of the old ones. Only ‘Rabbada Aiya’ will remain from the old batch and the audience will be led to believe that the old members have graduated from Mahadanamuthta to go their own separate ways.

 The new ‘golaya’s’ include Pol Baa Muuni, the brightest, most positive golaya who is always happy and outgoing, despite whatever trouble at hand; Puwak Badilli who is the complete opposite– abrupt, impatient, and always negative; Abdul Nana (Muslim character), Usi Amma (Tamil character) , Piyadasa Aiya a fully fledged patriot who is short tempered, judgmental and quick to flex muscles will all be introduced.

 To launch the origins of this puppet tradition, the Indonesian puppets will be integrated into the show as foreign visitors. Among them are Cepot, a famous Indonesian character – son of ‘Semar’ (the half god-half clown servant of the Pandawa brothers in the Indonesian adaptation of Mahabaratha) along with his two younger brothers Dawala and Gareng.

The plot

 The characters will keep alive the old satire blending it with modern situations. Mahadanamuthta along with his team will come to Colombo, Barn’s Place to be more specific to sort out a problem. The story will touch on the increasing greed for money and how people complicate themselves. “It will look at the basic simplicity of life. There is social satire and people will find themselves laughing at themselves.”

 The puppeteers who will be the backbone of Mahadanamuthta and his ‘golaya’s’ is Sulo herself along with Upul Alwis and Bhatara Sena Sunandar Sunarya. Music will be provided by Gayan Manokumara and Nuwan Liyanage of Nadro fame and Arief Rawanda. The script inspired by Sulo has been written by Wimalarathne Weerarathne.

 The show will be premiered on November 27 an invitees only event at the Indonesian embassy. It will be open for public on November 28 and 29 (next Sunday and Monday) at 2.00pm and 5.00pm. There will be no tickets, however reservations could be made and other audience members will have to be seated on a first come first serve basis. Sulo requests all those who are coming to be there 20 minutes prior to the show.

 For reservations please call Mallika on 2674337 or 2685042 ext 129. You could also call Tanya on 077 6909815 or mail t[email protected] or Sulo on [email protected].

 “The event is entirely enabled by the Indonesian embassy of Sri Lanka and the event is managed by a public even management company ‘Aurora.’

Pix by Dinuka Liyanawatte