Diwali, a joyous festival that celebrates the glorious return of Lord Rama and Devi Sita after the grandiose defeat of King Ravana. On this auspicious season of Diwali, StoryHour had a unique puppetry show in store around the story of the Festival of Lights and the ancient Sanskrit legend ‘Ramayana’.
Excited to have got a chance to stag her puppets in a virtual format at The Bhavan London and Healing Our Earth over the weekend, founder Neelima Penumarthy fills the gaps between pursuing her Master’s degree in Chemistry at Imperial College to establishing her team.
“Ramayana through puppetry is a way of conveying the epic story which resonates well with Indians here and keeps the others intrigued.”
India’s culture and tradition are richly imbibed: “Having grown up in India, art is all around you. You cannot miss it.”
Neelima’s inclination towards art rolled out as a teenager being glued to the television every Sunday with the rest of the country during the holy hour – Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ramayana’ broadcast on the national channel Doordarshan.
“Although I knew the Ramayana, seeing it visually left a mark on me. It was a production that captured everyone’s attention. During those days you couldn’t watch it later on, you had to watch on that day.”
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As young school-going boys, her sons Shreyas and Ayur Pulle had worked on short skits on scenes from the Ramayana before venturing out to pen down their own contemporary adaptation of the “great epic in a lucid manner”.
“In 2016, they decided to narrate what they had written which ended up becoming an hour-long audiobook published on Audible.”
Reflecting on developing a visual mode for the audio, Neelima adopted intricately carved British-made puppets to work their charm in engaging the audience to the script. The art of puppetry as we know has been popular in India and Europe, rightly amalgamating the cultures with stories.
Each puppet is a piece of art that can’t emote: “It is through the puppeteer you see the emotion. So, you have to be very keen while listening to the narration and observant.”
Fortunate to get in touch through the puppetry directory with Gillie Robic whose own keen interest in the Ramayana translated into Robic designing and directing the puppets for the StoryHour since its birth in 2018.
From being welcomed on the BBC Sunday Morning Live, having staged her show twice at the Diwali Show on Trafalgar Square, London and The Nehru Centre all the way to having it on the inflight entertainment of British Airways, StoryHour has been receiving tremendous love and attention in a short time.
She recalls, “At the Diwali Show, it was hailing and raining but we received immense support. The public was fascinated.”
Introducing the crowd to the six main characters – Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Ravana, Hanuman and Shurpanka – the team brought forth a beautiful narrative. “We had to create a script with just these puppets as we couldn’t leave too much to the imagination of the audience.”
Neelima has extended her platform to schools and care homes, educating the listeners in every possible way. With happiness in their eyes, “they ask me when am I coming back again”.
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Whether it’s in a Bollywood movie or daily life, costumes have always been a top priority for Indians. And giving the puppets a revamp during a live show, quite the hassle!
The filmed version of the show has enhanced the illustrative aspect that depicts the three significant stages in Rama’s life- as Prince, during vanvas (exile) in the forest and as King of Ayodhya.
Neelima brought on board teenage artists from language schools across the UK and India to resonate the voices of her characters in over six languages- English, Hindi, Gujarati, Spanish, French and German. Screened internationally at Indian embassies in Europe, Indian Cultural Centres in Paris, Berlin and London and the Hindu Society in Rome.
The film’s melodious tunes by British-Indian singer Saachi Sen and Avi Simmons reflects the overall theme of the Ramayana. The opener ‘Ram & Sita’ conveys love while the finale song ‘Light the Lamp’ is a nostalgic memoir of teaching ‘light overcomes darkness’.
Puppetry is a world in itself!
To get the artform kicking, Neelima is determined to take her show to greater heights, across oceans: “I need extensive support and funding from the audience as well as the financers.”
Her enthusiasm lies in adding more characters to her show- the Golden Deer, Kumbh Karana, Jatayu- the vulture and Mantara- the hunchback who possess a moral lesson on their own.