When the apsara sighs and moves her hips, the audience is sold. As she rolls her large eyes and mouths her lines seductively, it's easy to forget that the woman in the white lehenga-choli with cascading black hair is a puppet. But that's the magic wielded by 42-year-old Delhi-based puppeteer Varun Narain.
A graduate of mass communication from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Varun is known as an 'adult' puppeteer. No wonder, given that sexuality is a common theme in his shows.
"Gender lines need to be blurred," says Varun, who has no qualms calling himself a 'feminist'. "I like to play around with gender roles and defy stereotypes in my performances. There are too many prejudices in society - against women, gay people, straight people."
His puppets have not only walked the ramp in fashion weeks (he cites designer Tarun Tahiliani as a close friend), but have also helped children overcome trauma and abuse.
"I have worked with NGOs and counsellors, to help kids who have survived sexual abuse and trauma express themselves and tell their stories through puppetry," he says.
He has also held training workshops for street children, juvenile delinquents and sex workers, performing in brothels and jails. "Puppets are non-threatening. When you are behind a puppet, you can speak honestly, without the fear of being judged."
Varun was the first Indian performance-artist-in-residence in Switzerland through Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. There he met his mentor, Australian puppeteer Neville Tranter, who is based in Amsterdam.
His other mentor is Delhi-based puppeteer Ranjana Pandey, who teaches a puppetry course in Jamia, where he too has taught for eight years.
But it was his mother who introduced him to puppets at the age of seven. "My mother was reading a women's magazine that had a section on how to make finger-puppets. She taught me and I was hooked."
Varun has also been a professional sitar player, but his heart is where the puppets are. "Puppetry is cathartic. It has helped me deal with issues in my own life. And this is how I express myself."