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When he was only nine, his mother gifted Varun a Christmas magazine. In the hobby section, there were pages on how to make finger puppets. It was as if a Pandora’s Box had opened in the mind of the young boy.
And so, he kickstarted his journey into the vibrant world of puppetry with his first show exclusively for his own family.
Today, the Delhi-based gay activist and professional puppeteer use the living and interactive medium to open conversations about bold and taboo topics for the masses.
From nightclubs to pubs, national fashion weeks to brothels, villages in rural districts to slums in cities, his life-sized puppets made of upcycled material have travelled the world. They transcend conventional boundaries to talk about an array of topics like HIV/AIDS awareness, climate change, sex education, gender roles and women & child empowerment.
Whether it is the story of a princess who died of a broken heart, was reborn as a man and married a king or the story of the man who lives with a bleeding heart longing for his lover on the other side of the border in Pakistan – each of his puppets – apart from eye-catching structures – seem to have a mind and voice of their own.
One on hand is ‘Jhaadan’, from his production ‘Into the Box.’ She is a scrap of cloth in your home, treated worthlessly. And yet she is boxless. She refuses to be categorised and teaches you the importance of respecting every form around you, even the ones that turn dirty, in the process of helping you stay clean.
On the other is ‘Haara’, a green architect who has the power to speak to plants and sense their troubles. The trees seek refuge in him as rising construction continues to threaten their existence, uprooting them from the ground and pushing them into camps like modern-day refugees, which have no space to accommodate them.
His adaptations of renowned storytellers like Oscar Wilde and his power to adopt them in a modern context enthral the audience. This reflects in ‘Bowlful of Peals’, a gay-lesbian adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Giselle ki Kahani’ which is reimagined rural version of a 19th-century French Ballet about girls who at a certain age suddenly vanish, die, or kill themselves.
But the road to becoming an agent of change was not easy, especially when he wanted to learn puppetry professionally after school, but there were no professional schools that offered it. Also, people around him continued to tell him it was a dying art and wouldn’t be viable as a living.
So he went to film school and later joined the casting business. Some of the acclaimed projects he was involved in the casting of included films like ‘Lagaan’, ‘Kama Sutra’, and ‘Earth’, among others.
But he never really cut himself off from the world of puppetry.
While pursuing MCRC at the Jamia Millia Islamia, he would use puppetry in all his projects.
“It was a childhood passion that turned into a profession. But when I was asked to teach, that’s when it struck me that so much can be done with puppetry,” he told The Hindu.
In addition to the work he was doing, he continued to experiment with films and puppets. He spent time with several traditional puppeteers and learned through observation.
His major break came when he travelled to Switzerland in 2007 as an artist-in-residence through the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. He trained under his role model, master puppeteer Neville Tranter.
It was around the time that he started working with the Royal Tropical Institute Amsterdam, using his puppetry techniques and skills for HIV/AIDS awareness.
Not many know, but the puppeteer who uses his craft to create awareness about these topics is also an international concert accompanist who plays the sitar. He was trained as a kid under Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
A background in music, helped him make a foray into a niche style where he would have shows that used music and non-verbal puppets to narrate folk legends solely through gestures and their structure.
In the same interview with The Hindu, he reveals how the crux of his work is a rebellion against boxing anybody in, or for that matter, out.
Interestingly, he faced unexpected hurdles in India. For example, his work was openly appreciated for their bold takes on taboo topics in various other countries. But in India, he was labelled as an ‘adult puppeteer’.
“It just happened. I didn’t realize that children needed different puppets. Some adults who saw my show were not happy with kids watching it. That’s when I realized that there’s no sexuality education here, so it is better not to do these shows for children. Now I consciously make a division, but personally I don’t think there’s a difference,” he adds.
And despite what his critics may say about the topics Varun rightfully addresses through puppetry, he isn’t deterred. He embodies the resilience that celebrated author Saadat Hasan Manto had.
Born in British India, the acclaimed Urdu writer was infamous among his critics for writing about harsh truths that people lived around him but shut their ears to. His life is now being immortalised in a hard-hitting biopic, ‘Manto.’ Watch the trailer here.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)
Feature Image credit: Facebook/British Council India