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Reviewed by:
  • New Engey: Where Are You?
  • Kathy Foley
Nee Engey: Where Are You? Directed by R.V. Ramani, India Foundation on the Arts Cinegraph Production, 2003.

This documentary gives significant insight into the state of the traditional shadow puppet arts of South India via interviews and performances from a score of puppeteers, but lacks the polish and editing one expects of the documentary genre. The two and one-half hours of footage is largely devoted to showing the filmmaker's wide-ranging search for puppeteers and listening to what the puppeteers shared about their lives and performance. The resultant film reminds anyone who has done fieldwork of all the effort that such research involves. It does not, however, make for compact, interesting viewing. Poorly shot footage and thematic repetitions are frequent, but the filmmaker provides the data for us to see comprehensively the state of the art at the turn of the twentieth century. This is a documentary with a "you are there" feel, and the cockroach that runs out of the puppet pack gets his camera moment, just as the group portraits of each family of artists gets their time.

Those who are seeking information as researchers on Indian theatre will appreciate the great number of artists who are included and the ability to see more than one version of Ramayana (Ramayanan). Stories like the monkey Hanuman's mission to the demon kingdom Langka or the demoness Sarpakanaka's attempts to seduce Rama and his brother appear in various versions. We get a sense of how the clowns bring contemporary humor to the epic stories. We see the village environment and learn how modern times are forcing the groups that traditionally made their living by performing epic stories to radically revise their repertoire or alter their profession. The work has [End Page 169] valuable theatrical and ethnographic information. But those who are seeking a quick and easy introduction to shadow puppetry to show in a classroom will not find it here.

The documentary maker does not opt for a seamless presentation of background material, so the viewer gleans bits and pieces of the history from various interviews. A cultural expert, Ramaswamy, tells us in a short interview near the beginning the puppeteers in South India are all Marathi speakers, with the exception of the single troupe that is still operative in Kerala, implying that Marathi groups are part of a unified tradition that has migrated from Maharastha into other states. In a later interview we learn that Marathi speaking rulers governed in South India prior to the British colonial period and that, at that time, palaces patronized the puppet arts. In various interviews we hear that the art was active up until the last decades of the twentieth century, presenting Ramayana performances for up to fifteen days as part of regular village festivals. We see a festival in Kerala in which the Ramayana story is presented in the context of a festival for the goddess Kali (albeit with only a lonely sleeping figure and a few passing trucks to view). The historical background of the art is pieced together from such interviews.

The major accusation, which the film sets up, is that the new media–TV, cinema, and video–;have hijacked audiences that once watched puppetry. The imagery of the film sets up a popularity contest between Rama, the god-man incarnation of Vishnu who is the hero of traditional shadow puppet performances, and film actors in romantic interludes. To illustrate the competition the director cuts from sequences of actor Shivaji Ganesan singing or being honored at his death to a puppet master singing the praises of Rama. Cinematic romance trumps puppet performance. The filmmaker and the subjects on whom he lingers long for the return of the past when puppeteers served a religious and ritual function by bringing blessings and rain.

In viewing the film, one might refer Jonathan Goldberg's MA thesis, "The Performance Poetics of Tolubommalata: A South Indian Shadow Puppet Tradition" (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1989), and Borrowed Fire, the documentary on Kerala puppetry by Salil Singh (Kathanjali Productions, 2000). The research of the late Mel Helstein, who helped collect figures for UCLA's...