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Experiences with Papier Theatre

My introduction to Papier Theatre – and how I Survived!

Raju, Matia, Sonu… unforgettable characters spring forth from the pages of Shyamal Kumar Pramanik’s short story “Survival”, to share their gnawing hunger and degrading struggle to survive. Not an unfamiliar “Dalit” story. Yet they come home with me every night.

I have signed up for a Papier Theatre workshop for 3 weeks mid March, not actually being a puppeteer! From making documentaries, corporate films and Television programs for 20 years, I had gone back to my first love Theatre and was enjoying exploring its power as a tool to communicate and empower. At the core of it all was the consuming fire of storytelling, and as I realized, the greater the skill of the teller, the more magical the story.

“Alain Lecucq and Nargis Majd are Master Puppeteers, who will be focusing on the dramaturgy of the story, on the “What”, “Why” and “to Whom” you want to communicate with. You would enjoy it”. Anurupa’s words have me hooked!

I send in my application, get an acceptance and for the next 3 weeks, starting 14th March, I jump into my car at 8am and zip down the highway from Gurgaon, to make it on time for the 9:30 workshops at the Crafts Museum. This means no morning walks or exercise but such is my enthusiasm, that everything else is put on hold for 3 weeks. Of course I will pay the price of excruciating cervical pain once we go back to our “normal” lives, but I am so much richer for the experience!

It is an enchanting 3 weeks of stepping into a fairy tale world of make believe and watching it come alive! Starting with making simple paper stages and stories from personal experiences, we are exposed to some mind boggling videos of shows that Alain has done as well some of the most creative and innovative ones from across the world. I remember crawling back to the workshop space feeling most disheartened and almost embarrassed about what we had presented on the first day. The Bar of Excellence has suddenly gone so high, we have not even made our first baby steps!

Alain and Nargis are amazing as they alternate between being teachers, parents, guides and friends, adding to the warm bonhomie that has developed within the group. Starting with 11 participants, 9 of us complete the course, exploring 4 different stories through completely different formats.

My team mate Binitesh and me choose to work on Pramanik’s story “Survival”and spend the first few days diving deep into the themes and sub themes that the story opens up for us. Out of the 5 to 6 strands that seem to flow through the story, we have to crystallise our thoughts to choose one Central idea that will be our touchstone for all the creatives thereafter.

Wading through the complexities the story throws up for each one of us, we struggle to define that simple connecting thread, little realizing how important this will be, in keeping our entire presentation true to our central theme.

As I put pencil to paper and start allowing the story to flow into the storyboard, it comes alive in a way I have not experienced before – so simply and so quickly. I am Raju, fighting against the bitter cold, to feed and protect my wife and son – Matia and Sonu. It is my mother who has died an excruciating death while my father watches helpless in the famine, and I am determined this will not be the fate of my child.

Bini and me discuss, argue, agree, work together, reflect individually, share our thoughts and arrive at a consensus most times. It is fascinating to see a baby being crafted by two completely different individuals, drawn to a common theme, and to see it evolve from paper sketches into human characters as we draw and colour and fix them to cardboard sliders with “spines” glued to their backs.

Our little wooden stage is built by a carpenter simultaneously and as backdrop after backdrop slides into its slot on our stage, the characters or “paper puppets” glide on to share their tale of desperation and sheer grit to stay alive. At our final presentation at the India International Center, we add the magic of sound effects and focussed lighting and I am told that the effect is quite mesmerising. “Where would we be taking this show from here” is a question I am asked by many members of the audience.

Yes, where indeed would I be taking the show? Bini has gone back to Mumbai to teaching at his Film Institute, but I do have Raju and Matia and Sonu with me, who sit in my office room and look at me questioningly everyday! I owe it to them, to Alain and Nargis, to Ranjana and Anurupa, to our wonderful group who worked together and to Bini and me, to keep them alive and introduce them to all those out there who want to receive them.

Ah, the forest beckons and I promise we shall all walk through it again – soon!

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Puneeta Roy is Managing Trustee at the Yuva Ekta Foundation

 

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