July 7, 2013
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – 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.”
Gamwari also says puppetry needs creativity. But as a puppeteer, he faces practical difficulties in developing original plays and making new puppets. He must spend his time marketing his puppetry team and booking performances to ensure he makes enough money.
“I can see that if puppetry is to adapt and evolve, then it means we have to invest our time,” he says. “We can’t take bookings. We have to commit our time to developing new scripts, carving new figures and making their costumes. But then, how do we live?”
Because of puppetry’s waning profitability, many young people from families that have passed down the craft for generations say they cannot or do not want to continue the tradition.
Indika Gamwari, a fifth-generation puppeteer in Ambalangoda who is distantly related to Nalin Gamwari’s family, says in a telephone interview that his father taught him the craft. He formed a part-time group of young puppeteers who perform as a hobby.
He wants to work full time as a professional puppeteer, he says. But he sees no economic future in it. He now works in a private company that sells cosmetics.
There are also few opportunities to increase his knowledge of the art form, he says.
“There is no place to learn puppetry,” he says. “Even still, I don’t know everything I need to know, though I have grown up surrounded by puppetry.”
He still wants to learn more about puppetry, he says.
But Nalin Gamwari’s two daughters and son say they are definitely not following in their father’s footsteps. His daughter, Lakmi Rajika Gamwari, 18, says she wants to work in a bank.
“We can see that our father is struggling, so how can we think of it as a full-time job?” she asks.
Her older sister, Janani Tharaka Gamwari, 21, says patronage will only decrease in the future.
“We can see that this is a difficult field,” she says. “Already, there is so little patronage. It will only get less in the future.”
Some puppeteers and businessmen are re-evaluating the puppetry business model to revitalize the craft.
Sarath Abeygunawardhana, a businessman in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, helped to establish the Traditional Puppet Art Museum in 2007 in Dehiwela, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, he says.
Sri Lanka needed a place to showcase puppetry, he says. The museum exhibits various traditional puppets and performs for school groups and visitors.
“I see this as a good investment,” Abeygunawardhana says. “I’ve traveled and seen other puppet museums, and I know that we can also achieve those standards.”
He pays each performer at least 4,000 rupees ($30), he says. This is more than double the 1,500 rupees ($12) other employers typically pay the puppeteers.
“If you pay an artist little, then he knows you don’t value him or his art, and he will give you a performance that is worthy of what little you pay,” Abeygunawardhana says. “I believe, with a little encouragement, this field can be developed. And I pay the artists well because one way we can develop this craft is to give value to the puppeteers who perform.”
He also wants to find other ways for puppeteers to perform their craft, he says.
Abeygunawardhana has developed a script for a puppet television drama and is currently promoting it among local television stations, he says. He is also encouraging puppeteers to develop short skits featuring public awareness messages to perform in between acts of longer, traditional plays.
The Traditional Puppet Art Museum also offers puppetry classes to children, including those who do not come from families of puppeteers, Abeygunawardhana says.
“I wanted to begin classes for children in Colombo on puppetry to encourage a younger generation who may take puppetry in a new direction,” Abeygunawardhana says.
But there are several challenges, he says.
Traditional plays are oral and lack formal scripts, which makes it difficult for puppeteers to teach plays in educational settings, Abeygunawardhana says. To address this problem, he is developing scripts for some of the traditional plays with the help of various puppeteers.
Abeygunawardhana also struggles to overcome the barriers that traditional puppetry families erect to keep this art form their own. It took him many months to persuade a few puppeteers to teach some classes, he says.
Besides the museum’s classes, there are no formal institutions offering puppetry training, Abeygunawardhana and Tilakasiri say. State institutes used to teach puppetry in the 1960s, but they closed after less than a decade of operation when the government’s patronage waned.
But Wipula Gamwari, Nalin Gamwari’s younger brother and a puppeteer who lives in Ambalangoda, says the craft’s future lies in the hands of the younger generation in traditional puppeteering families because they have a special dedication to the craft.
“A lot of people who are not from traditional families start to learn the craft,” he says, “but after a few years, they drop out and fall away. They don’t have the same commitment that we have, so I think traditional families are where this craft will continue to live on in the future.”
He is teaching his son everything he knows about the craft. They work together to put on various public performances and street shows whenever his son is not in school.
His son, Arun Maleesha Gamwari, 17, says that he wants to be a puppeteer. He has taught the craft to two friends at school and has performed puppet shows with them. He dreams of restoring the prestige of the traditional art form nationwide.
“My dream is to take puppetry to all parts of Sri Lanka,” he says. “I have seen the audience respond to a good show. People are happy, and I think that if people can see good quality puppetry, they will become fans.”
Interviews were conducted in English and Sinhala.