Champaign woman takes 'Punch and Judy' act to India

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Champaign woman takes 'Punch and Judy' act to India

Wherever puppeteer Ginger Lozar travels, she puts on a puppet show. Even in foreign countries.

Wearing a portable stage that's easy to pack, the Champaign woman has entertained kids and adults in China, Mexico, Argentina, Thailand and now, India.

There, in October, she put on a "Punch and Judy" show in a hamlet near Jaipur. In another village in central India, she presented "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." Her tour guide translated into Hindi, though perhaps it wasn't always necessary.

Like music, puppets are universal. "It's the sense of play and the sense of theater," Lozar said. "If you bring out a puppet, the barriers break down."

That was true in the tiny village near Jaipur that's home to 12 families of snake charmers. Lozar, her husband, Charles, and other members of their tour group arrived there by bus and walked down a dusty path to discover their enclave of huts.

There, Ginger eventually put on her "Punch and Judy" show; you can see a video of the performance on YouTube. In return, the Indians performed for her group.

A young woman in a hot-pink sari and a couple of children danced, and five of the adult snake charmers performed their act, one that has been passed from father to son for at least 15 generations.

While in India, the Lozars were unaware that the number of snake charmers is dwindling as a result of wildlife protection laws, animal-rights initiatives and cable television, which has demystified reptiles, once believed to be the guardians of gods.

The government crackdown on snake charmers began about a decade ago, though India had passed in 1972 the Wildlife Protection Act, which in part bans the keeping of pet snakes.

Last year, about 5,000 snake charmers from West Bengal protested in Calcutta the threat to their livelihood, and leaders of a union for snake charmers asked that the traditional performances be made legal again.

The Lozars, though, saw snake charmers nearly everywhere they went, especially at tourist sites. Ginger Lozar said the snake charmers who live together outside Jaipur travel from there to perform at hotels, bus stops and festivals.

At their home base, the five men, wearing saffron-colored turbans and white robes, sat on the ground while playing gourd flutes and drums, enticing the trained snakes to rise out of their baskets.

Contrary to popular belief, the snakes are not hypnotized by nor do they respond to the music. They can't really hear.

Instead, "The snakes respond to the movement of the players," Ginger Lozar said. "When the snake struck at the player, it was because he was moving his instrument back and forth."

And though the prospect of danger from a poisonous bite is an inherent part of the act, the Lozars were told beforehand by their tour guide that the venom had been removed from the snakes.

During their 16-day tour of central India, the Lozars also saw many puppeteers, including a mother-daughter act, presenting short shows, or vignettes, in hotel lobbies and at other tourist sites.

The Lozars were in India during one Diwali, the festival of lights, making colorful India even more so.

"Everybody was putting fresh dung on their houses in the villages," Ginger said. "People were painting designs on the walls."

This was the Lozars' second trip to India. The first came 40 years ago. This time, they saw more, taking in the sights with a dozen or so other tourists, some of them professors, in the Overseas Adventure Travel "Heart of India" tour. It took them to Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi and places in between.

"I actually saw a wild leopard; it was wonderful," Ginger Lozar said.

That was in Ranthambore National Park, where the Lozars and fellow travelers followed the sounds of monkeys in hopes of seeing rare Bengal tigers. No such luck, though.

For Charles, the most distinctive thing he saw was the "stunning and colorful saris" the women wear. "They stand out, like they're glowing. I'll stop going to India when the girls start wearing blue jeans," he said.

Charles, an architect, also enjoyed making pen-and- ink sketches in India of different sites, among them a ninth century well at Abhaneri surrounded by a 15-story structure containing 30,000 steps.

As for Ginger, she returned home with 12 puppets she bought in India, adding to her collection of several hundred from around the world.

Lozar, who has been a puppeteer since 1985 and has been an Illinois Arts Council roster artist since 1987, plans to eventually present a puppet show here with the puppets she purchased in India.

She had told Overseas Adventure Travel, before she and her husband left for the tour, that she wanted to perform wherever she could. The guide arranged the two free shows she gave.

"I love doing it. Obviously it's one of the joys of my life," she said. "When I was done with the 'Punch and Judy' show, after all the excitement and energy, I told our tour guide, 'This is the happiest day of my life.'"

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