Four decades ago, when Meena Naik, an acclaimed children’s theatre director and actor from Mumbai, wanted to learn puppetry, she had to learn by trial and error, painting faces on empty plastic bottles and rag pieces and bringing them to life with voice modulation and staging techniques. “Anyone can become a puppeteer. You needn’t have a good hand in art and craft. You just need to be creative,” believes Naik, who now pulls the strings at Mumbai University’s very own Puppetry Department, where she started a first-of-its-kind certified course in puppetry in 2013.

Meena Naik at work
Meena Naik at work

“No other university in India offers such a course. The aim is to keep the art alive and make puppetry accessible to the masses,” says the 65-year-old head of the department.

This year, the course returns in a shorter avatar — shortened from eight to four months. “The course is open to anyone who has passed SSC or an equivalent examination. There is no age bar. Last year, a 60-year-old social worker had also enrolled for the course,” says Naik.

As an active social worker, Naik uses puppetry to communicate about various causes, from AIDS awareness to child rights. In fact, post the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, she had conducted puppetry workshops for children in relief camps. “Puppetry is a form of therapy. After the course, students can conduct workshops, be it for children afflicted with cancer or those who are physically challenged. Through the course, homemakers can learn to make puppets and also supply them to schools that use them as teaching aids,” she signs off.