“What you see here is only a small part of the collection,” she said. “We have around forty thousand artifacts, collected over a period of twenty years. My husband was a cameraman for a TV company, and he collected puppets from the different countries he visited while filming documentaries.”
The collection we had just seen at the Luebeck Puppet Museum was, in itself, significant: spanning three floors and around twenty rooms, there were around a thousand puppets from three continents covering different time-periods. To think that this was less than five percent of their collection was a bit mind-boggling. Do you rotate the collection? I asked.
“No,” she replied. “There are just the two of us – my husband and I – managing this place. And maintenance is such a difficult thing. The wood these puppets are made up of require a lot of care. We’re looking for sponsors, to help us manage this collection. Perhaps the company you work for might like to help? Big companies have a lot of money, you know.”
She was an Indian, a Malayali with expressive eyes and the smile of a classical dancer. She had been living in Germany for 20 years now. Her husband, the puppet collector, was an elderly German with the air of a distracted professor; he greeted us with a Namaste and told my Wife he knew she was from Kerala the moment he saw her.
We had first met the lady the previous day, when we entered the museum to ask directions to a hotel. She had switched to Malayalam the instant she learned my Wife was from Kerala: “Per enda?” she asked both Wife and me, and introduced herself as “Saras”. When she gave directions to the the hotel she said: “Tell them that you are from the museum, that I sent you there”. And she asked us to come back the next day, to visit her and see the museum.
The next afternoon, before we visited the museum, we went for a show at the Puppet Theater nearby. It was a small, cosy theater, and was almost full when we entered, mostly with children and a few parents who sat like tall, silent posts next to the bobbing, noisy heads all around them. The puppeteers entered a little later than the announced time, and some kids replied to their welcome with a definitive “Endlich!” (“Finally!”), which took the puppeteers by surprise and prompted them to offer reasons for the delay. Then they asked if anyone in the audience was celebrating a birthday on that day; three hands went up, and these three were asked to come forward to receive a nicely-wrapped gift. The play being staged was the Princess and the Pea, and all hands went up when the children were asked if they had read the story. Some started reciting lines from it, and it took a while before order was restored and the play could begin.
It was not one of those string-based puppet shows, but one where the puppeteers wore gloves and moved the puppets around, giving voice to them, in full view of the audience. So it took a while to focus on the wooden figures and not get distracted by the human forms moving them around. The children didn’t appear to have this problem: the giggled and laughed at the right places, and seemed enchanted throughout.
After the show we walked to the museum in the building a little down the street, and Saras welcomed us with a warm hug. When we told her we’d just been to the puppet show, she came out with a flurry of questions: Was it good? How big was the audience? Was it a marionette puppet show, or the glove one? It turned out that the theater had once belonged to her husband’s parents, and had recently been sold to another group who was now managing the place. She then asked us to look around the museum, but refused the entrance fees.
The diverse collection, the result of one man’s passion, had me spellbound. The similarity behind different branches of this art form that had sprung up independently in different corners of the world was striking. The collection reminded me of an exhibition I had attended in Lausanne about an year ago: it was a small sample of artifacts from Nek Chand, another collector of sorts who had devoted a few decades of his life into gathering waste material and creating life-size figures and illegally planting them around a vast area of a forest, and in the end had created a collection so vast and spectacular that when it was discovered the government decided to turn the illegally-used stretch of land into a national park and appointed Nek Chand its Director. The power of years of focused work – be it nature’s or that of man – is immense. This comes to mind also when I see images of the Grand Canyon.
After we got back to the reception, Saras invited us for a chat and offered tea and biscuits. This room, partly a shop with puppets for sale and partly a cafeteria with long wooden benches and tables, had wooden figures hanging on walls and pillars, posters of puppet-shows probably a hundred years old, and paintings depicting stories.
Saras spoke to us about how she met her husband (“I was in Hamburg at that time, running around like a frog, when Fritz met me”), and how she discontinued her interest in classical dance to devote herself to her husband’s passion (“one needs to make sacrifices”). She spoke about her daughter, about her wedding to a Finn that took place in India (“We had around forty people from Finland flying into India for the wedding”). She expressed her concern about the museum’s collection and its management, well beyond their lives (“We’ve created a foundation and after us everything will go to this foundation, and not to my daughter who may decide to sell it. We want to ensure that this remains in the hands of those who will continue to care for it.”) . When asked about the attendance and the interest of people in the museum, she said it was going down (“People have less money these days; we’ve begun to notice this especially since the last few years.”). She asked us if we could put up some posters of the museum at our workplace, and packed some pamphlets for us to distribute.
When we left, she bid goodbye by kissing us on the cheek. Sensing my hesitation (I am yet to get used to the intimacy of this gesture) she smiled and said “This is how people greet each other here, and I’ve learned their ways.”