One of the most-watched, most-commented and most-lampooned moments of the 2013 Presidential Elections happened during the very first debate between Obama and Romney. The latter declared that he would end the funding of public television (PBS) with taxpayer money, even though he loved Big Bird, a puppet character from the popular, long-running US TV show, Sesame Street. Adults of practically all ages reacted strongly over social media, at workplace water coolers, and in homes all over the US. Given the weightier issues of foreign policy, the US economy, etc., the fact that this particular comment became so controversial (at least till the next news cycle) tells us how much we, as a society, love our childhood story characters – puppets though they may be.
A long-held love for this particular performance art and for oral storytelling led to the creation of “Kahaaniya for Kids” (Stories for Kids) – an Indian-American puppet show company founded in 2012 by Neha Bhatt, a Special Education Teacher, and Pallavi Mahadkar, a Business Analyst. The two ladies met a few years ago in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, through their toddlers’ day-care. As they became good friends, they reminisced about the Indian folk tales and mythological stories that they had enjoyed as children. Neha, having grown up in India, had not only enjoyed Indian puppet theater as a child but also used the art form for behavioral therapy with special needs children. Pallavi, an artist and musician in her free time, had grown up in the US, but, through her own Indian-born parents, developed a deep appreciation for Indian literature and mythology.
Storyacious: Neha and Pallavi, thanks for making the time to talk today. Let’s start with – why puppet shows? What drew you both to this particular art form?
Pallavi: I find it a really fascinating art form with so much history, art and content to draw from. As you might know, puppetry is one of the oldest theater performance arts, dating back to at least 3000 BC. Excavations of ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece, India, China and Japan have turned up evidence of puppets used for entertainment as well as in ceremonies and rituals. Literary works, visual art, folk tales, ballads and songs from these cultures have also described or illustrated puppets through the ages. Whether using sticks, shadows, wires, rods, ventriloquism or other mechanisms for animation, puppets have pre-dated human actors in live theater. Isn’t that something?
Neha: Even today, one of the earliest games that we play with children is where we manually animate dolls or action figures and make up stories about them. Practically every country today has its favorite puppet shows – Punch & Judy in England, Kaspar & Grete in Germany, the Muppets of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show in the US, Rostam & Sohrab in Iran, and so on. In India, various sub-cultures have their own favorite versions – for example, in Rajasthan, where the puppet is known as “kathputli”, meaning wooden doll, puppet shows are key attractions at every major celebration, fair, festival and social gathering. Having grown up in India, we saw puppet shows on TV, street corners, school – everywhere. Sometimes, we’d just be out shopping for groceries and stumble onto an impromptu street performance with puppets. It was always such a joy and everyone – adults and kids alike – would stop to watch.
Pallavi: Right. Also, entire industries continue to thrive around this enduring art form – from puppet-making (which includes entire theatrical sets and stages, not just the marionettes), to puppet-handling talent to the puppet show writers and composers (for plays, operas, etc.) For me, the visual art aspects of puppetry are very appealing. To design and create objects that are almost life-like, human-like, is a wonderful challenge.
Neha: And, you know, there are various schools of thought on the benefits or effects of puppetry, especially with regards to the development of children. Whether used for education, entertainment or as art therapy, there is no doubt that children engage with puppets more actively than they do with, say, TV or film performances. In schools and educational centers across the world today, many children actively collaborate in designing puppets, creating stories and delivering performances.
Wow. I can really hear your passion there. OK, so, tell us a bit more about K4K. What kinds of shows do you do and who is your primary audience?
Neha: So, our mission, through K4K, is to entertain and educate Indian children, ages 5-9, growing up in the US. Stories are a powerful medium for entertainment, but also for teaching and imparting cultural values. We want to inspire curiosity in these children to learn more about India’s rich diversity and heritage – the many customs and traditions – but, of course, in a practical, American context. This is something kids in Indian-American communities won’t get from American schools – as wonderful as they are.
Pallavi: And, we are, first and foremost, parents who want to lead by example. So, collaborative, interactive puppet theater is also a way for us to inspire our own children to appreciate the performing arts and be creative — act, play music, sing, paint, dance, tell stories. Indian kids growing up in the US don’t often have a lot of mainstream Indian artists that they can look up to as role models. I know I didn’t. So, we also aspire to be some of those artistic role models. We’ve already enrolled our kids to do some recorded voice-overs, which was great fun.
Neha: It is important that we present and perform stories using dialogue, songs and exciting media that kids being raised in America can easily relate to. Each of our story performances includes characters that talk just like the kids who come to watch our shows. We will often present the parents’ characters in our stories as being of Indian origin (complete with an Indian accent – mostly for the laughs, of course), while the kids’ characters tend to be American. Just like most of our audience.
Pallavi: It’s also a great way to get kids outdoors. And, often, when there are cultural community get-togethers, there’s the question of how to keep kids of a certain age busy and out of trouble. Our puppet performances are great for this sort of thing. Of course, we offer options for different types of events – birthdays, religious festivals, school celebrations and so on. We customize our play scripts to fit these different needs – whether they need to be more secular or more education-oriented or fit in with the religious curricula of a particular Indian cultural community center.
And, how did you get started? What were some of the basic steps?
Neha: After we did some shows for friends at social gatherings, we got some terrific positive responses. We were also encouraged by a larger turnout at a local Indian cultural center. So, when we realized that there was a larger demand, we sat down and brainstormed some ideas that led to defining our purpose and mission. This was important for us – to be aligned completely before starting our K4K journey.
Pallavi: The next thing we did was start developing both the concepts and the physical elements required for our shows – the puppets, the theatrical sets / stages, etc. This took a while as this isn’t a full-time business for either of us – we’re Moms and we have our day-jobs too. Some of these, we designed and created from scratch. Some, we were able to source from India.
Where do you get your creative inspiration for the stories / performances? What are your sources?
Neha: We draw primarily from Indian mythological stories as well as traditional indian folk tales. We’re careful to keep them interactive and collaborative so we keep the kids engaged. Going forward, we’d like to do more original stories as well. From a personal standpoint, I have more than a decade of teaching experience with deaf, blind, autistic kids, and emotional behavior-disordered, so I bring some of my teaching approaches to the stories and performances.
Pallavi: And, we do want to make the stories relevant for America today. So, where possible, we tweak the older, traditional stories to be more contemporary. We also incorporate music of Indian origin in all of our performances. And, my personal talents are on the creative side – I paint, am trained in Indian classical music and have studied Indian literature in the original Sanskrit. So, I’m able to bring that to the show design, storytelling and performances.
How did you find your initial customers?
Neha: Yes, this was a tricky one. While we had a large social network in our neighborhood, we clearly needed needed to cultivate our target audience beyond that. So, we started working closely with a local cultural school that focuses on teaching South Asian culture to young children ages 5-9. This led to more word-of-mouth introductions.
Pallavi: We’re also working on creating our brand and social presence through Facebook. While we’re revamping our website, we also plan to put videos up on Youtube, pictures up on Pinterest, etc. At some point in the future, we are considering selling keepsakes (e.g. puppet miniatures, little storybooks, audiobooks, etc.) that kids can take away with them after watching a performance – brand promotion.
Speaking of looking forward, how are you hoping to grow / expand?
Neha: Along the way, as we were designing and creating, we talked some more and agreed on realistic short-term and long-term goals. We decided on, for example, delivering 3-4 shows/year in the near-term. We also plan to establish partnerships with all the key indian organizations / schools in the Atlanta area first, then expand to surrounding areas.
Pallavi: Longer-term, we would love to do 2 things: 1) take our shows on the road and 2) have our own playhouse or host events at a local theater venue – with regular shows year-round. Also, we’d like to open up to non-Indian audiences. And, of course, more promotion through Facebook, website, branded products, etc.
Great. Thanks, you guys. This has been a great discussion. I’m excited for what you’re doing and how much you’ve accomplished in a relatively short time, while still working your day-jobs and taking care of young kids of your own. Clearly, this is a labor of love for both of you. All the very best for K4K.