Waning profitability keeps Sri Lankan youth from puppetry

By Manori Wijesekera  |  July 9, 2013 at 5:42 PM
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (GPI)-- Nalin Gamwari, a lifelong puppeteer, sits in his modest home in Ambalangoda, a seaside town on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast known for its puppetry community. Puppets and musical instruments surround him. When Gamwari thinks about the future of puppetry in Sri Lanka, he says that sadness fills him. “I am now resigned to the fact that this craft, at this level, will end with me,” Gamwari says, as his fingers unconsciously play with the black threads of a string puppet. “It makes me unbearably sad to realize we are coming to the end of puppetry as we know it in Sri Lanka.” He is a third-generation puppeteer. His father and grandfather were traditional string puppeteers and earned a comfortable living from year-round performances. But Gamwari struggles to make ends meet as a full-time puppeteer. So he says he cannot encourage his children to take up the traditional profession. “I can’t expect my children to follow me into puppetry as a vocation because I have struggled so much to make a living from it,” he says. “I want them to have a better life than I have had. As a parent, how can I direct them towards puppetry?” Puppetry, a professional craft that certain Sri Lankan families have passed down for generations, is losing its mass appeal for several reasons, including the rise of television. Younger members of traditional puppetry families must pursue other careers because they cannot earn a living as puppet-makers and performers. Still, some puppeteers and entrepreneurs are trying to breathe fresh life into the craft by re-evaluating the business model and offering puppetry lessons to children. Puppetry is one of the world’s most ancient art forms, says Jayadeva Tilakasiri, a retired professor and author of several Asian puppetry books and papers. The first group of professional Sri Lankan puppeteers came from Ambalangoda, he says. The art form took root there, and the families’ descendants continued and developed the tradition. Puppeteers in Sri Lanka are multitalented performers, Tilakasiri says. They carve, paint and string their own puppets. On stage, they sing and use their puppets’ voices. Many also dance and play multiple instruments during performances. But puppetry is losing its mass appeal. Many link the decline to the increasing availability of modern entertainment here. Tilakasiri says puppetry’s golden age in Sri Lanka ended in the 1970s when new forms of entertainment, such as television and cinema, emerged. Folk arts retreated to the countryside and more rural areas. Gamwari blames television for the decline of puppetry in Sri Lanka. “TV is what killed puppetry,” he says. “You know, people stopped going out of home for entertainment. They stayed home all the time. This affected all the community-centered art forms.” The popularity of learning puppetry also declined in the 20th century because of the craft’s exclusivity, Tilakasiri says. Puppetry has been a family-based art form in Sri Lanka, and families who traditionally have performed the craft prefer to keep it among themselves. Tilakasiri also links the decline in puppetry to the fact that puppeteers have neither adapted the craft for a modern world nor have created new material. Puppet show story lines in Sri Lanka often focus on Buddhism – the country’s majority religion – or historical events. “Unless you introduce new themes, new subject matter and make your stories dramatic with humor, et cetera, you can’t get an audience,” he says, “and you can’t get students either. Puppetry has become a static art. Even if there were philanthropists willing to pour money into it, it can’t survive without a burst of creativity.”

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