“May God grant me just another year of life”

Shyamhari Chakra

A cult figure in the world of puppetry, 84-year-old Maguni Charan Kuanr of Odisha prays for just another year of his life on this earth – and not for the ever elusive pension or Padma Shri award from the Government – so that he can complete his new project and present it to the public.

Recipient of India’s top honour for performing arts – Sangeet Natak Akademi Award – and his State’s highest honour, the Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja Samman from Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, Maguni, who lives in Keonjhargarh town, is the lone exponent of the much marginalized but immensely captivating rod-puppetry tradition.

Old age, fallen health, acute financial constraints and lack of required patronage have failed to dampen his spirit to carry forward his passion-mission-profession of puppetry.

Excerpts from the following interview that I had with him on Sunday revealed how committed has been the artiste-extraordinaire towards his arts.

Your family members and well-wishers feel that you need rest. Many also say that you did not get all that you deserved for your great work.                             

I understand their concern for my health condition at this advanced age. Some also say that I deserved a Padma Shri title. It’s true that I am yet to get the artistes’ pension from the Central Government. But I can’t rest as long as I am able to move my hands. I am committed to this rod-puppetry tradition that is exclusive to my native place.

But puppetry is dying in India.                                                                                                               

It pains me a lot when people say that my art as dying. I am quite old now and would pass away anytime. But my art would exist if it gets proper patronage. I can claim from my experience that people belonging to all generations love watching our performances. Unfortunately, we do not get enough opportunities to perform and sustain ourselves to carry it as a profession.

Is there a solution to the crisis?

Puppetry is one of the most ancient arts forms of the world and it thrived with patronage of the public and the royal rulers as well. We need to modernize our productions to suit the changing taste and time. But where is the government or community support for us today?

I was honoured with the Akademi award by the Central Government but I was not even considered for a pension. How would an artiste survive to serve his art! Both of my sons quit puppetry as they did not find it sustainable. Most of my disciples discontinued it as a profession and switched over to other avocations for survival. Government can do a lot to save us.

Why did you decide to get into puppetry? We know that you don’t belong to the family of traditional puppeteers.

My father was a zamindar in the erstwhile princely state of Keonjhar. As a kid, I curiously watched the local dalit community making out a living by playing puppets fixed on a wooden rod in front of the houses of our locality. The puppets fascinated me the most and I was quite keen to learn playing the puppets like them.

But my father would not allow me as it was the avocation of the dalits. Yet, with the help of the carpenter who was making the puppets, I secretly met the master puppeteer and started learning the art from him. When the master passed away, he had no successor. I decided to face my father’s ire and of the orthodox society to perform puppetry in public. I was barely 20 then. And there has not been any looking back since then.

The pandemic has halted all arts activities. How are you engaged these days?

All the assignments to present my productions have been cancelled due to corona crisis. It has caused too much of financial hardship for me and for my troupe members. However, I am engaged in an innovative project with my puppetry. I am developing and designing puppets from paper pulp to replace the usual wooden puppets that I have been working with for nearly 70 years. These puppets would be bigger in size, lighter in weight, more stylised and would suit to a larger stage production.

I just need a year more to present my new and innovative work to the public. I pray God to grant me life for a year more to fulfil my last desire.