Puppets that provoke

Dated: 2013-06-15
Puppets that provoke

People who attended the various meetings and dharnas (sit-ins) in support of the right to information (RTI) legislation in India often had a special word of praise for the creative use of puppets in spreading the message about the importance of RTI.


In particular, they were impressed by a glove puppet called ‘Moofat' (Mr. Loudmouth). True to its name, this puppet could say anything and everything without apparently offending anyone.


The use of puppets enables social movements to not only enliven their campaign and attract people, but also enables them to handle difficult and sensitive situations. Instead of saying something directly, activists can use puppets to speak out, or even enter into a dialogue with the audience. A character like Moofat, for example, can take a dig at powerful people even in their presence. No offence taken as the speaker after all is only a puppet!


This was particularly useful in the RTI movement and the wider campaign for transparency. At village meetings sometimes activists had to speak against the most powerful people of the area, and puppets come in handy.


Apart from Moofat, other popular characters at these meetings were Jokhim Chacha and Dhanno Bua. Created in the mould of village elders who can say anything, these characters also took the burden of saying inconvenient truths remarkably well.
Shankar Singh, founder member of the MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana), the organisation which led the RTI campaign in Rajasthan and elsewhere, has spent years experimenting with the use of puppets, particularly glove puppets, for spreading socially relevant messages. Apart from the RTI campaign, he used puppets to great effect in the campaigns for rural employment guarantee and social audits.


Shankar Singh says, “Some people think that puppets are mainly for children, but our experience shows what a useful role these can play in social movements. People love Moofat for his wit and humour, but they also recognise him as a character that can speak its mind on controversial issues and can be quite provocative. So Moofat comes in handy for making people think about controversial and sensitive issues as well.”


Ram Niwas heads a puppets unit in Social Work and Research Centre in Rajasthan. The communication unit of this centre regularly visits villages to spread messages on issues like health and hygiene, renewable and clean energy, environment protection, women's rights and the need to end all forms of discrimination. Puppets are a big help in all these campaigns.


Ram Niwas says, “The traditional puppeteers in Rajasthan usually told stories of kings and queens. When we decided to use puppets for social change and movements, we were also led to make other changes so that puppets could be used more easily by more people. Instead of traditional wood puppets manipulated by threads we started making glove puppets using old newspaper and sponge." These glove puppets can be worn on hands (thumb and the next two fingers) and manipulated easily. Rod puppets are also used in campaigns.


These puppets evoke intense involvement in the audience.


“We frequently get requests for repeat shows”, says Ram Niwas revealing that once rural women insisted that the ending of a puppet story against liquor be changed so that a more hopeful message is conveyed.

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