What makes 72-year-old Lata Satagupan so passionate about using puppetry in education? Her strong belief that it is a technique well suited to storytelling. And storytelling, in turn, is an effective communication tool. “Puppets are an ideal educational tool for the age group 9-14 years old. A doll is not just a doll or a toy. It is life and it can replace a human being.”

“The narrator has the choice of using simple narration or combining it with a visual medium such as drama or puppets. In simple narration, the narrator must be very expressive with words and children must understand exactly what is being said. This understanding becomes easier with puppets. In fact, I use puppets Minimal speaking. The message has to come through puppet play, action,” she explains.

Lata has been committed to crafting innovative and socially relevant dolls for the past 37 years, and has earned a solid reputation in India and abroad. She trains teachers in puppetry at training colleges as well as institutions such as Mt Carmel’s and Christ University in Bengaluru. Besides, she organizes workshops for both children and adults to share her passion for puppetry.

Lata satagopan

Lata’s thematic puppet shows, which are conducted both online and offline, imbue the principles of “Theatre in Education” along with her practice of storytelling and screenwriting. She uses these to fuel her passion for bringing the art of storytelling to life through puppetry, and has been awarded a state award as an innovative teacher of puppetry.

behind the screen

Lata recalls that her passion for drama and literature developed during her school days in Bengaluru. With the support of her teachers, she has been creating plays on topics such as world culture, acting out entire poems, and exploring puppet theater at her school. As an introverted child, she noticed it was fun being able to talk behind a screen.

“It was an exciting period in school life when (English actress) Jennifer Kendall and her family came to our school to conduct workshops. We had been exposed to Shakespeare’s theater for three years. Since we were a small group, we got the best out of interpersonal interaction,” says Latta.

After earning her BA and MA in English, Lata became an English teacher at the Women’s Peace League School, where she taught for 12 years. She would actively participate in staging plays at school which she enjoyed. Exposure to drama early in life changed her way of thinking. As a teacher, it made her want to try new things.

“How I became a puppeteer”

The turning point in her life and career came when she was asked to represent her school and the state of Karnataka in a 45-day puppetry training program held in Shillong in 1986. The program was organized by NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), New Delhi.

doll in education
Lata was awarded the State Prize as an innovative puppet master.

This was her first exposure to the outside world. There were about 100 teachers from all over the country, the theme being national integration, the participants learned patriotic songs.

“It was a fun experience. I got to know puppeteers from different regions and we will share our skills and experience in training. Famous puppeteers were our teachers.”

“After the program, I received a certificate stating that I had been trained in the ‘educational use of puppetry’. Participants had to go back and spread the message of integration in their countries. Without knowing it, I was chosen as a puppetry expert in the Ministry of Education,” says Latta. After that, I attended conferences and submitted papers for NCERT.

Tap into your “inner child”.

According to Lata, making puppets and participating in puppet shows improves communication, interpersonal communication, literacy and motor skills of children. It’s also therapeutic because it taps into your “inner child,” honing creative and critical thinking skills.

“Engaging with dolls leads to positive behavioral changes and improves socialization as well,” asserts Lata.

As an educational tool, dolls make learning more interesting for children, and develop children’s observation skills. “These media are powerful because of the visualization involved, the movement or action, and because they facilitate language development,” she explains.

Two developments gave a powerful impetus to puppetry in India. according to national education policy 2020, which proposes experiential learning (learning by doing an activity) for all age groups, the central government has developed a game-based educational curriculum to help schoolchildren in the age group of 3 to 18 years understand basic concepts of science and mathematics, as well as develop sensory and motor skills. Besides blocks, puzzles, masks and sand art, dolls should be used as tools in schools to educate children.

Another development that Lata sees as promising for the future of puppetry in India is that art has been included in the BEd curriculum for the past few years. I have been asked to address 100 students who have taken a BEd course on puppetry. We made dolls from newspapers. Puppetry can be used in teaching English, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Twisted ends, unleash creativity

The topics of the puppet shows are usually socially relevant such as personal hygiene, Swachch Bharat, health issues, community living, national integration, children’s behavior during COVID, career counseling and guidance, and messages for environmental protection.

To write scripts about these, Lata also involves children. It has prepared thematic collections with dolls of subjects like Shapes, Colors of the Rainbow, Food Chain, Swachch Bharat and National Integration.

Sometimes, Lata does shows based on books. She has created puppet shows based on “The Little Red Hen”, “Three Little Pigs”, “Birbal’s Khichdi” and A Christmas Story, to name a few.

She tells an interesting incident. “We were staging the story of the lion and the rabbit and how the rabbit escapes by outdoing the lion. In the traditional story, the lion falls into the well and dies. But, in a twist in the tale, the children decided they wanted to teach the lion a lesson but didn’t want him to die. So, at their end, the lion came out. From the good repentant. Even Lata didn’t know about this change!

Children with dolls
Puppet shows for children

Joy and meaning

Although there are many styles of puppetry, Lata specializes in “glove puppets”, where the contact between puppeteer and puppeteer is closer. When she gives a puppetry demonstration, she also shows how to use puppets made of string, spoon, and leather. She says different levels of energy are needed depending on the style of the dolls.

Puppets are usually made of paper, thermo and cloth. I use handmade paper, and as a result, the dolls have lasted through the years despite the wear and tear due to their use by children,” says Lata.

She also likes to combine songs with storytelling, making her shows more interactive, as the audience can sing along. Each performance requires a maximum of three days’ rehearsal. Sometimes, she carries a screen saver with her. In others, you improvise on the set with tables and papers. She must locate the appropriate interior because sounds will not be carried outdoors.

Lata satagopan
“A doll is not just a doll or a toy,” Latta notes.

In 1992 we had to put on a show at the Visvesvaraya Museum on the theme of space. I was wondering how to show stars or fly rockets. The museum team helped us put together a slideshow that runs parallel to the puppet show. This was an innovation that helped me on many occasions. I used it when I helped a group of kids put on a puppet show at a community program on infectious diseases at St. John’s College of Medicine,” Latta recounts.

Recorded voices are not used in the puppets, as live voices make the performance more engaging. But Lata has introduced recorded music in some of the performances instead of a live orchestra.

“Puppets bring joy and meaning to my life in many ways. I share my passion with others. I am constantly innovating and being more creative. For example, I am now involved in using puppet art to render different types of masks in India. My work involves a lot of research, which I love to do Its.I also feel that I am contributing to popularization of puppetry skill.Karnataka is famous for its puppet art, but it is not getting enough appreciation.All the way, I encourage new puppet artists.

Edited by Divya Sethu; Image credits: Lata Sataghopan


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