Message through marionettes

Updated: Feb 14, 2019, 08:53 IST | Snigdha Hassan

A theatre production on diversity and inclusion in education features women from different walks of life as puppeteers

Message through marionettes
(From left) Play directors Sudipta Mukherjee-Mandal, Ritika Sahni and Charu Prasad. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

In the seventh-floor auditorium of the YWCA in Andheri, familiar tunes of Boney M's Brown Girl In The Ring and MJ's smash-hit Black or White fill the air. But when you listen in carefully, the lyrics turn out to be, "Rules of the Animal School/ Tra la la la la.../All must do all things." Five women, seated in a circle, are being instructed about whether the squirrel enters before the elephant and when the lion steps in. Once the stage marking is done, they pick up animal marionettes, ready to bring them to life with a pull of strings.

"They have learnt how to manoeuvre the puppets well. We are now working towards helping them internalise their character and the story," Ritika Sahni tells us, as she takes a break from the rehearsal of The Learning Factory, a puppet theatre production by the NGO Trinayani, of which the singer is a founder-trustee. The play marks the organisation's foray into projects around inclusive education; creating awareness about disability being its core area of work. To be staged this Friday, the play revisits George Reavis's classic, The Animal School, which was written as an allegory in 1940, and highlights the plight of children who have unjustly suffered the fate of standardised tests and curricula.

(from right) Shubhada Pawar, Chitra Shirke, Shaifa Mobin Sheikh, Shaikh Saba and Yojana Wavikar have been trained as puppeteers

"We wanted to use a creative medium to start a conversation around education, and that the idea of one size fits all does not work. Puppetry, when used as an educational tool, has done wonders. So we thought why not rope in those individuals as puppeteers who can gain from learning the art?" shares Sahni, who invited educators and professional puppeteers Charu Prasad and Sudipta Mukherjee-Mandal to come on board to teach the art to five women from different walks of life, many of them being community workers with the YWCA.


"Puppetry is a sensory experience, and so little of what we do today is sensory. It tends to calm the body and the soul. It sparks the imagination, boosts confidence, and can even be used as a language learning tool, as was the case with some of the women here, who were not too familiar with English," explains Prasad, referring to the motley group, which includes a Class 10 student, a make-up artiste, a mother who is doing her graduation with her son, and a special educator.

"I have used finger puppets in the past as part of my workshops. But using string puppets at a professional level is a first," says Yojana Wavikar, who acquired her degree in special education after her daughter was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She adds, "It is easy to capture children's attention with puppets. The message gets through without being preachy." Another puppeteer, Shaifa Mobin Sheikh, tells us that handling 13 puppets among the five of them was a challenging task, while homemaker Chitra Shirke adds how manoeuvring the marionettes was also a lesson in teamwork.

Teamwork is also what has helped bring the production together. Mukherjee-Mandal, for instance, who is also the creative resource person for Trinayani, is behind the aesthetically designed puppets. "Creativity is therapeutic," she tells us, as she gives finishing touches to the bear puppet, for which actor Ashish Vidyarthi has lent his voice. Reavis's story has been adapted for the play by Pune-based Deepak Morris, who has also reworked the lyrics of the popular songs. The songs have been sung by Sahni, some of which she will perform live tomorrow.

"After this public performance, our aim is to take The Learning Factory to as many schools as we can," Sahni shares, "a step closer to our dream of an inclusive education system that celebrates diversity."

ON Tomorrow, 6 pm AT Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
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