Shadow puppetry

Art was born out of human need to communicate. Various art forms like painting, dance, music and puppetry were prevalent and powerful media of expression. Puppetry being a significant one among them has been pre-dominant for long and overtime it has evolved into many forms. One such form is shadow puppetry. As the name reveals, in shadow puppetry, the messengers are shadows. Unlike the usual form of puppetry, which was prevalent in Rajasthan, shadow puppetry was prevalent in many states of south India. Also shadow puppets are not as whole and colorful as the usual ones; instead they are paper-cut with their joints such that they can be freely operated by threads.

A shadow puppet theatre consists of a white screen on which the shadows of the puppets are projected using lamps. Wonderful effects can be generated by moving the light source and the puppets. The color of the light source was used to enhance the act. For instance, red color was flashed for war scenes. The interesting part is yet to come. One must remember that all this happened centuries ago. So, they couldn’t have switched on and off multi-colored laser lights for such effects. Where else did they bring color from? How could they have colored their light? This is where beauty surfaces. They had actually flashed white light through colored cloth for obtaining colored light. Not just light but this art form faced many other challenges. In shadow puppetry only the profile of the puppet is visible. To overcome this limitation shadow puppetry was excessively dramatized. They are elegantly sculpted and take as many as 3000 cuts. Beauty of this art form lies in the method adopted for differentiating characters. In shadow puppetry this is achieved using their character wise features. For instance, a peacock feather stuck to the hair implies Lord Krishna, a ten headed image meant Ravana and a woman seated on a lotus flower meant Goddess Lakshmi.

Even though shadow puppetry is different from the usual puppet shows, its use and importance in the society is same as that of the traditional one. Puppet shows were a medium of communication. To know more about traditional puppetry and its importance click here! Shadow puppeteers of India still follow Indian tradition and customs in their acts. Being one among the dying arts, shadow puppetry is prevalent in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu .

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Man requires expressing himself. He had thrived for this freedom. This is when he created art. Art is nothing but another mode of expression. The mode adopted for expression differs. From a painted canvas to a sculpted statue, from a hand written poem to a vocally sung song, from aiming arrows to handling animals, from dance to stunts everything is an art, everything is a human attempt at expression. India is an adobe of such expressive art. Indian villages were home to many traditional practices. One among such expressive practices was puppetry. Puppetry is animating inanimate objects. Beautifully molded and painted dolls were brought to life through strings. They danced about gracefully through a pair of hands, the puppeteer’s. In India puppets are locally known as kathputli, where kath means wood and puthli means doll. Puppet shows were mainly for entertainment while they were also performed during festivals, ceremonies and celebrations.

This ancient practice is believed to have originated about 3000 years ago. The tradition of puppets is based on folk stories and folk believes.  Puppet shows are the oldest form of entertainment.  These string and wire controlled articulated puppets were mainly used for communicating ideas and needs of the villages. Puppet shows during festivals recreated epics, local mythical heroes and allegory of their deities. Extracts from legendary epics were reanimated as a moral message to young children. Puppet shows were also used as a medium to educate the illiterate locals about how to face day to day hurdles. The shows were aimed at creating awareness about dowry, woman empowerment, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and cleanliness. They provided the people with solutions to their problems. For instance, a local recollects a puppet show on how to respond during snake encounter. Another example was the demonstration of first aid during various situations of emergencies and dos and don’ts during natural calamities. Puppet shows had attracted people of all ages.

Seeing a puppet dance about flawlessly in a theatre, one tends to forget that it is being handled by the puppeteer. Puppet shows were enhanced by adding music and giving voices to the puppet characters. Visual aids included curtains and weapons for the puppet warriors. Characteristic to this art form are the shrill voices of the lead puppeteer spoken through a bamboo reed. In India, puppetry is more prevalent in Rajasthan. No religious festival, no social gathering, no village fair and no celebration in Rajasthan can be complete without the kathputlis. Today, kathputli is one of the major performing arts in Rajasthan. The tribes and locals of Rajasthan have been preforming this art since ancient times and it has become an eternal part of Rajasthan culture and tradition.

Art, like beauty, is a matter of perception. It goes beyond mere appreciation because appreciation depends on interpretation which in turn depends on the observer. There are varieties in the form of the puppet show. Shadow puppetry is an example. Puppet shows are a visual treat to the audience. Colorful dolls weave about more colorful stories as they move about the screen. This traditional art has to be protected.

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Queer and Queerer: Surrealism

This is the third and final part of a three part series that focusses on the oddities of art and literature. This third segment deals with an irrational form of art. Read on to know more…  

People love mystery, and that’s why they love paintings. The most popular works of art have been painstakingly analysed and discussed to come to a conclusion on what the artist was trying to express. But what if the art is so mind-numbingly illogical that all we can do is speculate? Welcome to the revolution that is surrealism.

Sigmund Freud implored artists to explore the unconscious state of mind.

Post World War I, artists across the world felt an upheaving sentiment against rationale and socio-political issues. Led by the French writer-poet Andre Breton, art took a turn for the irrational. Most of what surrealist art had become were based on the findings of Sigmund Freud. He was a reputed Austrian Neurologist who performed intensive psychoanalysis and dream-work to soldiers suffering from shell shock. His in-depth analysis on unconsciousness is where surrealists drew their inspiration.

In Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 he defined it to be-

Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

There is always the element of surprise when it comes to surrealism. In this world 2 and 2 does not add up to 4. Elements not generally found together could be combined in a single canvas to produce illogical and startling effects. On studying the works of stalwarts such as Salvador Dalí we see how far artists are willing to distance themselves from the rational world. Consider his most famous work of art, The Persistence Of Memory (1931).

The Persistence Of Memory

Critics first regarded the melting timepieces as a testament to the relativity of space and time brought out by Albert Einstein. However Dalí refuted this by saying the actual inspiration was the melting of Camembert Cheese in the hot afternoon sun. These artists constantly dangle a carrot of reason in front of you and snigger as you jump to catch it.

This is definitely not a pipe.

Another classic example is René Magritte’s- The Treachery of Images (1929). The cryptic sentence at the bottom translates to “This is not a pipe.”.  As absurd as it sounds what he intends to proclaim is that the painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe.

Over the years surrealism changed from the idea of liberation of thought to that of political change. The backdrop of the World War only intensified their voice with Surrealism soon becoming synonymous with communism.

One can summarise this unique manifestation of art by quoting Salvador Dalí- “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” 

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The art of pot making - part 3

Potters have spun and shaped out many artistic wonders. Their color bound clay ware has never failed to make an impression. As we walk through museums, stacked with these aesthetic picks, we can almost relive the essence of our Indian tradition. Along with the pots, the art has also been locked up. Today, pot making is a dying art. Man has found substitutes for clay and porcelain. Seldom do we find people using earthen ware in their kitchen. Utensils made of steel and aluminium have replaced the traditional ones. Containers made of plastic or metals are used because they are more durable than the pottery which is fragile and breakable. The development of electrical pot making machines have led to more number of pots in a shorter period of time and desired shape can be achieved easily. Also the materials used are long lasting. On the contrary, fired clay used in the pottery tends to be tenuous. To know more about how pots are made click here!

But restoring faith, pots can be found being used for one purpose, the very same traditional use – natural water cooling. Yes, water stored in a mud pot gets cooled naturally. This is attributed to the pores present in the clay ware. Science behind it is that water leaks through the pores of the pot, absorbs heat from the water inside and evaporates away cooling the water stored. Exploiting this, some water companies have come up with the idea of fitting these conventional pots with a spigot, a lid and a flat base for easy water extraction. Such pot making technologies are effective in preventing contamination while remaining acceptable to the rural people.

Tracing the origin of pottery in the Indian sub-continent leads us to the Indus valley civilization. For more about the origin of pottery in India click here! Pottery flourished not just in India but also in several other countries like Egypt, China and Germany. Pottery in India is one of the oldest art forms. Handling clay requires skill and this is among the earliest skills known to Indians. Indian potters are locally known as kumhar or kumbhar.Indian potters are famous for the beautiful statues of deities. There are only a few pockets in India where the potter’s wheel is still turning. One of the problems they face is that demand for pottery is seasonal. For instance, clay lamps are on a high demand during Diwali. Due to such irregular income and lessening demand, potters do not want their children to follow their footsteps. This dying art needs to be protected before it vanishes from the future of Indian art forms.

A wonderful piece of art has great healing powers. Art can make one construe life through non-linear narrative. Pottery is a small dot in the wide canvas of art.

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Queer and Queerer: Jabberwocky

This is the first part of a three part series that focusses on the oddities of art and literature. The first segment deals with an extravagant genre of literature. Read on to know more…  

Hey, diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport.
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

You may have heard this 16th century nursery rhyme. For years literary experts and historians have attempted to fathom the meaning of this verse.  Numerous theories came up involving (and not restricted to) Queen Elizabeth I, the flight from Eygpt, Egyptian Hathor worship and even corruption in ancient Greece. But at the end of the day, most scholars conclude that the poem actually may have no particular meaning at all. Welcome to the world of literary nonsense.

Childish fantasies of a nonsense realm

Believe it or not, nonsense literature is in fact a legitimate genre of writing. This art stems from the human desire to make sense of everything, even in places where probably none exists. But don’t get me wrong, nonsense literature still possesses its own semantics, phonetics and contextual meaning (paradox?).  This can be clearly discerned upon reading classic nonsense stories such as Alice In Wonderland (1865). The author Charles Lutwidge a.k.a Lewis Carroll is regarded as the knight in shining armour of nonsense tales. Alice In Wonderland, is often wrongly regarded a children’s tale, due to maddening content. But over time, it had been re-categorised as a work of nonsense- that even adults can derive joy from. Matter of fact, Queen Elizabeth and Oscar Wilde were some of the first readers of the book.Indeed, the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter cross the boundaries of the rational realm but there is always an unnerving logic to the plot. Through a cycle of frustration and understanding, readers whizz through pages of Alice before it hits them that half of what they read is mere balderdash. At one point of the story the Hatter asks Alice the infamous riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’. As you would expect a few lines later the Hatter admits that even he doesn’t have the slightest idea why. It’s anecdotes like these that entrance the reader.

Illustrators often have a hard time when it comes to nonsense lit.

But Lewis didn’t stop at that; he made nonsense literature a worldwide phenomenon with his follow up to AliceThrough The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).  In this, he goes a step ahead with the quintessential nonsense poem Jabberwocky. You can test the waters with the first stanza-

Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

At first glance I wonder, what in the world that man was smoking when he wrote this. At second glance…never mind.

Carroll here presents a tale in the form of verse, and the distinctive characteristic is the words of his own he added. The genius of it is that the placement and phonetics of the words are such that the layman may believe that they are simply out of his vocabulary. He also took the pains of annotating some of his creative privileges. For example with regards to ourgrabe he says ” ‘outgribing‘ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle”. And thus is the tale of how the word Jabberwocky made its way into the Oxford Dictionary to mean nonsense.

At the end of the day nonsense literature is simply what you infer of it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but once you do- you’re hooked. And therein grolls all its werpitude.

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CONES. No, no! Not the delicious wafer or waffle ones in which we eat ice-creams. These are the light sensitive neurons present in the retina. Why did I invoke the essence of Biology? To emphasize how cones are specialized for color vision and sharpness of vision in bright light. Color. A seemingly simple yet profound English word, probably even considered the essence of life.

Everywhere we look around us, the world has been splashed with color. Right from color-coding Chemistry notes to painting a room in a house, colors play a major role. It may be safe to assume that the visual arts are almost incomplete without this factor. Artists use color to bring out different emotions in their work. A painting is generally a composition of several colors which bring out the artist’s imagination on canvas. Nature is a work of art, with her grandeur and beauty making an impeccable impression on every person who sets his eyes on his surroundings. Well, how exactly did colors rise to significance?

Some of the most famous paintings are those found on the walls of the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Since the decline of Buddhism in the 7th century, these caves remained buried in the Western Ghats until they were accidentally discovered in 1819. The magic of art, however, only remained dormant over a century. Till today, the paintings on the walls of the caves remain vivacious, retaining their color and clarity. Till today, the hues haven’t died out, the tones haven’t faded. What form of paints did the artists of the seventh century even use? Research suggests that the pigments used were of the simplest kind of materials including yellow earth, red ocher, green rock, brick dust, lamp black and copper oxide.  These components on inter-mixing gave rise to a wide array of nearly permanent tones which haven’t lost their vivid beauty till today!

When one talks about art, the primary thought that strikes a person is that of Paris, and Musée du Louvre, in particular. The grand museum boasts of a collection of nearly 35000 objects and 8 million visitors a year. The paintings in the Louvre Museum are of global importance, having been immortalized in the pages of History textbooks and in the minds of art-passionate individuals alike.  The Louvre is home to a wide variety of paintings, right from “The Lacemaker” by Johanes Vermeer, the smallest of his paintings, to Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding Feast at Cana”, the largest painting in the museum. Naturally, several of Leonardo da Vinci’s marvels adorn the walls of the Louvre, including Mona Lisa and Virgin on the Rocks. All these paintings bear a stark similarity, the wide array of colors used intelligently to produce eye-catchers, head-turners and brain-ticklers.

As though these examples weren’t enough to convince one about the need for colors in this world, the artist Milind Mulick’s works are gaining popularity today. His astounding ability to reproduce nature’s beauty onto paper with a few strokes of his brush make his works a class apart. His most preferred medium of painting is watercolor, a rare choice over oil paints and poster colors. However, he has the ability to create wonders with a single color, be it pencil or charcoal, by sketching the most intricate scenes in monochrome. This is truly art, a form which, despite lacking colors, is powerful enough to captivate its viewers and making them take in all the minute details.

As paradoxical as this may sound, I conclude by saying that colors certainly serve as an effective medium in paintings, however monochrome definitely lacks no majesty. It, too, like all other works of art, captures the interest of the viewers. As Einstein beautifully puts it, logic takes you from A to B, but imagination takes you everywhere!

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On Art

Express Ideas

The common notion among the bourgeoisie is that expression and meaning are deeply interwoven. So much so that it would be a near impossibility to define the two without each of these entities even existing. This ideology that is so firmly rooted in the minds of the general populous has largely to do with the evolution of language.

Looking through the eyes of causality and effect, language is a direct result of our need to express danger, the sight of prey, anger, and alertness. Beginning from basic guttural noises to the creation of a complex system of vowels and consonants, and creating a field of study of its own, is an evolutionary marvel in itself that deserves great appraisal, at least for the sake of the inner Narcissus in our species.

Communication is essentially a freedom of the soul as much as it is expression. Yet, the complexity and beauty of communication couldn’t have been fully appreciated had it not been for the development of poetry and the fine arts. The two challenge the institution of direct communication set up by conventionality and have brought with itself an element of allure to even the simple act of speaking.

The ramifications of such refinement brings more intricate forms of thought into light, and such thought require even more complex forms explanation. The human need to draw, to sketch, to illustrate, to paint, and every other stroke of the brush is a long-drawn corollary of language. Once the blatancy of a work of art is taken away, what most are left with is an overused umbrella term abstract art

So, what is this abstract art? Why does it have to be so abstract? More so, what makes it so abstract?

The lack of reason, for one, is a major outcry. In quaint contradiction, abstract art could be “open to interpretation”. Why is it that when one set of people sight no meaning while others sight multiple ones? Maybe, it is not the meaning that matters. Maybe, this reason that we search for is no more universal than any other cultural definition for truth.

The minds of the masses are so inclined to search for so much meaning and so little empathy. Art is a reflection of one person’s struggles and happiness mirroring that of the one who views it. It is not only an expression of language, but that of pure universal consciousness; A footprint of our existence in time. Even the solitary stroke of a paintbrush is the purest expression of feelings.

Art, is essentially, mankind’s ode to existence.


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