When Rathy S, a stage actor, storyteller, and puppeteer, went to perform in a school in Erode in 2010, a child asked her if she was from Africa. “I am used to getting such questions since my complexion is dark. After the child’s comment, I stopped the teacher from punishing him,” she says.
Instead, Rathi performed a 40-minute storytelling session on colourism and what she faced due to her dark complexion. “Other girls in the class also complained how they are called karuppi (slur for dark-skinned),” recalls Rathi, now 39. Her show on colourism impacted young minds.
“A few months later, when I went back to the school, the girls came back rejoicing how they were never called ‘karuppi’ again. At that time I realised how acting, storytelling and puppetry, can bring about a change in society,” says Rathy, who also works with children with special needs.
Hailing from the Keelathenkalam village in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, Rathy’s relationship with puppets and storytelling began at the age of five. Her father had taken her to a bank function that featured a puppet show, which got her smitten with the way dolls interspersed entertainment and knowledge.
Journey into the world of performing arts
When she grew up, Rathy worked in the leather technology industry, which further instigated her to move to the creative side. “The industry consists of 99.9 percent men, making it practically unsuitable for women. The locker room behaviour, inside jokes, compelled me to leave the place,” says Rathy, who took up acting in 2009 and storytelling in 2014.
And thus began her journey in the world of performing arts. Initially, like most artists, Rathy faced challenges due to the absence of venues to display her talent.
“When I had just turned 30, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and suggested drama therapy (which uses theatre techniques to facilitate personal growth and promote mental health). Drama is cathartic because you are playing characters that you can’t be in real life,” she says.
One of the first few plays she performed was for Chennai-based actor and director Sukanya Umesh. “She gave me the script, and we all broke down, crying during the rehearsals because the script was so relatable. It was about all the insults that a dark-skinned person would have to face growing up in Chennai, and it was therapeutic to do the play. I always believe that everyone should get a standing ovation once in their life, and this play got me that. I was appreciated for my art after this play and I chose this to be my career," she says.
Rathy then began working for a storytelling company and took up gigs that covered her food and travel expenses besides payment of Rs 2,000.
However, COVID-19 led to the closure of the company, where she worked as a vice president, rendering her unemployed. “During the pandemic, all the artists had to go through tough times. In the third wave, someone contacted me and I decided to perform using puppets and children’s literature. That’s how I bounced back into this stream again,” says Rathy.
For storytelling, Rathy underwent training through YouTube, read many books, and took online sessions. “I have the whole collection of materials from Children’s Book Trust, which was very helpful when I started. They have books on how to make puppets, work with them, and much more.”
Rathy has a collection of 100 puppets. She sources string puppets from Jaipur, glove puppets from Tilonia, and leather puppets from Hampi, Telangana, where artisans practise the traditional craft.
Rathy has done over 1,000 shows so far.
They range between 40 and 50 minutes, interspersed with riddles, songs, and dance. She charges Rs300 per person for her public shows, and the rates vary for institutions. For NGOs and audiences with special needs, Rathy works at discounted prices.
“Art is very cathartic, makes you very happy. As a person who had clinical depression, theatre, and puppeteering did a great job of healing me,” she says.
“I am only happy that this art form has given me this space to express myself and the love of the audience with whom I can share and cherish many happy moments,” Rathy adds.
Themes and influences
With her target audience being primary children, and young teens, aged 5 to 14, Rathy localizes Indian children’s literature and storybook content for her performances. Ramendra Kumar, Asha Nehemiah, and Ashok Rajagopalan are some of the authors whose stories provide fodder for Rathy’s sessions.
“The content we have now is amazing and sometimes, if I have some themes in mind, I write my own stories. I had a show in Bengaluru recently, and all three stories were my own,” says Rathy, who performs in literary festivals, shows, schools, and rural areas. She also performs for older teens on demand.
“I mostly select fun stories. The themes are based on the day, and school audience. If it is a puppet show, it is primarily fun,” she says.
“But one thing that I hate doing is moral stories or ending the session by announcing the moral. It is because what I may think is morally right might not be the same for someone else. And the concepts built earlier may not stand the test of time,” she says.
“I feel when the story ends the audience should feel empowered instead of guessing what they should have learnt from it. I do a lot of stories on colourism and gender as well,” mentions Rathy.
Challenges, reception, and responsibility
Rathy is extremely mindful when she does shows for children diagnosed with autism and dyslexia. “There can be a lot of things that would be okay for others, but triggering for autistic people. You would be working with an 18-year-old on the spectrum and they would not understand that puppet is a non-living thing. You need to be mindful of the language. I don’t change the story for them, but I make sure I don’t go louder or angrier,” Rathy mentions.
As someone who has performed in both rural and urban areas, Rathy feels that she has not yet cracked the code for Chennai and labels the city as a “morally grey ground”.
She adds, “Art is not supported as much as cinema or stand-up comics. After the pandemic, I did only four shows, and the turnout range was not enough. I have been discussing with other artists who face the same. I did rural shows in Tirunelveli, Jaipur, and Varanasi, which had excellent turnout. I have no idea why.”
Rathy points out that the response is great among her audience. She also lets the children manage the puppets and shows them how to hold and move them.
“At one puppet play I did on a dancer, an artist who attended the show also wanted to be a dancer, but couldn’t become one. They came to me and said how they saw themselves in my puppet. In another show, an octogenarian said my show reminded her of the one she saw in her childhood. People appreciate me. That motivates me.”
The puppeteer also takes some time to highlight how the art is dying and only a few artists are practicing it. Recalling the times when she saw puppets being sold as wall hangings and souvenirs, Rathy rues that puppets now hang as a piece of decoration instead of being on the stage.
(US Anu is a Madurai-based writer. She specialises in stories around human interest, environment and art and culture.)