'Your imagination is the limit'

Updated: Aug 31, 2019, 08:30 IST | Snigdha Hasan | Mumbai

Alliance Francaise de Bombay director, Frederic Simon, dons many hats. The puppeteer and thespian on bringing DIY toy theatre to Mumbai and the puppeteering tradition of India he plans to take back home.

Frederic Simon shows the theatre de papier technique. Pics/Ashish Raje
Frederic Simon shows the theatre de papier technique. Pics/Ashish Raje

Before Peppa Pig and Chhota Bheem came to reign over children's senses, there were the simpler pleasures of gathering around Nani Ma to watch her transform afternoon ennui into a magical world of fairies, kings and queens, and animals that spoke like humans. Halfway across the world, the Europeans were regaling kids with stories too — with a dash of theatre. Théâtre de papier or toy theatre is a form of miniature theatre dating back to the early 19th century, which makes use of a hand-made proscenium set-up and paper figures.

"It was like a TV show for children before the television was invented. Parents, and even kids, would assemble it at home to perform stories. It was popular in Germany, England, France and Spain. In fact, it remained a much-loved source of entertainment in Spain right up to the mid-20th century," explains Frédéric Simon, executive director, Alliance Française de Bombay. But it isn't just the position of a cultural ambassador of his country that equips him with the knowledge of this intriguing theatre tradition.

Examples of pocket and shadow theatre. Pics/Ashish Raje
Examples of pocket and shadow theatre

Simon is a trained puppeteer and theatre artiste, and in a daylong workshop today the limited slots for which got filled up soon after it was announced, he will give Mumbaikars a taste of toy theatre. The makings of the workshop are already on his desk when I meet him in his Churchgate office on a Friday afternoon. And the simplicity of the raw materials tells you that in French toy theatre — and in the world of children, as it ought to be — less is more.

Simon has fashioned a proscenium theatrical set-up out of a cardboard box, its flaps making for the perfect wings. From a slit on the top, he suspends a sheet of paper attached to a stick, which acts as the backdrop. Paper-cut human and animal figures, including some in kathak postures, have been stuck to a rod created out of artificial flower sticks, using which they can be moved on the stage. There is enough space for a book to be kept atop the carton. "There is no need to remember the dialogues; you can simply read from here," says Simon, pointing to his copy of The Little Prince, as he places the book on the box. Next, he brings out a tiny carton and places two little figurines in it. "And that's an example of pocket theatre. [In théâtre de papier], your imagination is the limit," he adds with a smile.

Frederic Simon

In his two years in India, Simon has travelled across the country meeting traditional puppeteers in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and southern Maharashtra. "While puppeteering as a technique is relatively new in France, it has been at its peak there for the last 50 years. In India, the tradition and its many forms have a rich history but unfortunately, the younger generation in traditional puppeteer families is moving away to other professions," he observes.

Irrespective of how it is practised today, puppet theatre was born for the same reason. "You need figures to tell a story. And those stories needn't be only fairytales. Puppets, as was the case in the industrial city of Lyon in France, can be an incarnation of revolution," he explains, referring to how puppets would be used to convey the condition of the silk mill worker. "Puppets allow you to distance yourself from the strong themes you want to present."

With a year left for his tenure to end, Simon already has a bunch of Indian stories in mind, which he wishes to present through puppet and shadow theatre. "There was a time when a Dalit couldn't touch a Brahmin with his shadow. This will be the story of a man who fights his own shadow when he is punished for doing that," he says, adding "The stick figures of the Warli art form lend themselves perfectly to théâtre de papier." In times when several traditional Indian art forms are dying, this Indo-French dialogue may just give them a new lease of life.

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