Rafi Peer Theatre: Voice of the puppets

Published: March 23, 2012

Anne Hilgesen from Norway and Apple Tree sisters from Iran performed at the ninth Rafi Peer Puppetry Festival. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

Anne Hilgesen from Norway and Apple Tree sisters from Iran performed at the ninth Rafi Peer Puppetry Festival. PHOTO: PUBLICITY
Anne Hilgesen from Norway and Apple Tree sisters from Iran performed at the ninth Rafi Peer Puppetry Festival. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

There was a time when puppetry was a part of popular culture and hand puppets were made by children in their arts and crafts class. But with the advent of technology and its constant evolution, the concept of puppetry receded into obscurity and kept going until Rafi Peer Theatre started hosting an annual Folk Puppet Festival of Contemporary and Traditional Puppetry.

This spring local and international puppeteers converged at the Rafi Peer Theatre to participate in the ninth International Folk Puppet Festival of Contemporary and Traditional Puppetry. The fiesta, which is scheduled to run from March 21 to 25, celebrates and brings together some of the best folk puppet artists in the world and aims to put puppetry back on the artistic map.

“Puppets can do more than people can on the stage. One can say things more clearly and coherently via a puppet’s gestures and animated voice than by putting them in an actor’s mouth,” explains Anne Noejgaardo, a 52 year-old Danish theatre veteran, who also started a puppetry company in Denmark called Teatret Lampe.

The puppetry tradition in Noejgaardo’s hometown, like in many other countries in Europe, has been supported by the government and has been made a part of school curricula in an effort to keep the art alive. However, Noejgaardo explains that out of over 103 children theatre groups active in Denmark, only 35 receive direct support from the Danish government. As a result, this sector has required concrete efforts from theatre enthusiasts and puppeteers themselves.

Noejgaardo herself is the head of a troupe that performs over a 100 plays a year in Denmark and has made a niche for themselves in a world of contemporary, hi-tech entertainment. “I feel that theatre should undergo persistent evolution and development because we are directly competing with strong media like TV and film,” says Noejgaardo, who is performing an improvisational play at the festival.

Professor of puppetry

Anne Hilgesen’s aunt Vipke Hilgesen visited Pakistan around 15 years ago and her aunt’s stories of Rafi Peer puppet festivals inspired Hilgesen to attend this year’s festival personally. Hilgesen, who is a professor of puppetry at the University of Oslo, has been performing since 1985 and now has her very own 140-seat theatre. While speaking about the government’s nonchalance towards this art, Hilgensen says, “Folk puppetry has been struggling to survive because it only gets support from theatre fans and aficionados.”

She explains that government’s loss of interest and the resistance to contribute to this sector is a global issue which has halted the progress of puppetry in many countries. Hilgensen, however, states that the situation is not that bad in her hometown. “Norway is a small country but compared to other countries it still has made considerable efforts to support this art. For instance, there used to be a whole department dedicated to puppetry.”

Globe-trotting sisters from Iran

Fahime Mirza Hsseini, oldest of the four sisters who form the Apple Tree group, has traveled all around the world promoting culture and arts. The puppetry-lover says that she came to Pakistan because she realised how similar Pakistani and Iranian culture are and she assumed that if puppetry is so well-received in Iran, it will connect with Pakistani children as well. “Puppets are a very good source of infotainment. They connect with the imagination and make education more vivid and exciting,” says the 37-year-old.

An era comes to an end

The mood at the launch of the ninth annual International Folk Puppet Festival was sombre as veteran puppeteer Ghulam Qadir passed away due to a heart attack. For local puppeteers, his death means the end of an era. “He had been performing for nearly 30 years and now our kids will carry our legacy and do puppetry,” says puppeteer Saqib Ali who is from Multan. “This has been our family’s tradition and we will not let this die out.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2012.

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