Wednesday, October 31, 2001 Play with your voice, try ventriloquism

31 Oct 2001


Enjoy throwing your voice, and putting words in a muppet’s mouth? Try ventriloquism–it’s sure to leave you speechless.

IN THE Middle Ages, you didn’t have to be a witch to be burnt at the stake. Just being a ‘belly speaker’ would have done just as well. In fact, Blount’s dictionary dated 1688 defines a ventriloquist as one "who hath an evil spirit speaking from his belly, or one that can use and practice speech as if it were out of his belly".

Ventriloquism was billed right up there, along with voodoo and black magic, as a dangerous phenomenon that needed to be censured and exterminated. Denouncing it as one of the three pillars of witchcraft, the Catholic Church condemned practising ventriloquists to eternal damnation.

The ancient world, on the other hand, was much smarter. In those days, religious priests simply threw their voices into bushes, trees and temple walls to inspire awe and reverence in unsuspecting devotees. While the earliest roots of ventriloquism are difficult to trace, it is assumed that both Greek and Roman oracles, especially perhaps the Pythian oracle at Delphi, used ventriloquism to pronounce those pithy prophecies they were so famous for.

Modern-day ventriloquists are of course stars of altogether another order. Many have turned their talent into a money-spinning entertainment idea, while others simply belly-talk because it’s fun to do.

Read my lips. Ventriloquism comes from two Latin words: ventre meaning ‘belly’ and loqui meaning ‘to speak’. Vents, as ventriloquists are popularly known, are adept at throwing their voice without moving their lips. The trick is to do this in such a way that it seems as if the voice were coming from a distance or from another source, usually a dummy, doll or muppet.

Actually, as with most magic, more than a physical effort of ‘throwing’ the voice, ventriloquism is all about illusion and misdirection. As Mumbai-based ventriloquist Ronnie Vachha says: "Vents just work on controlling their breathing, and on modulating the volume and pitch of their voice to create the illusion of distance." Then by moving the dummy’s mouth, they fool you into thinking that’s where the voice is coming from.

Try this for a start. Close your eyes and ask someone to call you. You will be amazed at how difficult it is to guess where the voice comes from. You need visual confirmation to tell you the exact direction of the voice. It is this basic scientific truth that vents use to great advantage. They use the vent figure or dummy to create the visual cue for the sound they produce. Since they don’t move their own mouth, lips or jaw while speaking, the sound appears to be coming from the nearest logical source, the vent figure with moving lips.

Sound advice. But first things first. If you want to learn ventriloquism, you must be prepared to unlearn quite a few of the essentials your phonetics professor taught you. Were you taught for instance to open your mouth adequately in order to articulate properly? Well, now you have to learn to keep your mouth shut.

A vent must learn to speak without moving his lips. Impossible as it may sound, there are only five letters of the alphabet– B, F, M, P and V–that cannot be articulated without using the lips. W is another tough letter and will require some working. The rest of the alphabet, especially the vowels, is relatively easy to pronounce with a partially open mouth. That is why most beginners can, with a little effort, get a whole sentence like "Hi, how are you" with very little lip movement.

"As for the difficult letters, avoid using them as much as possible, and where you can’t, substitution is the name of the game," says Vachha. Use a D for a B, a Th for an F and V, a T for a P and an N for an M. So, boy becomes doy and please becomes th-lease.

Besides, the dummy can always find a way to mispronounce a word to make it sound cute or even funny. "But that’s only for beginners; with constant practice one can learn to pronounce even these letters," says Mumbai-based ventriloquist Deepak Pandey.

Voice over. Voice modulation is equally important. "In order to be an effective vent, developing two voices–one, your own and the other, that of your muppet–is essential," says Udipi-based ventriloquist Prahlad Acharya. It is important that the voices be distinct, so that the listeners know your natural voice and are also able to easily recognise the second tone that you use for the puppet.

"It’s not just the ability to modulate your voice, but to be able to do so quickly that counts," says Vachha. The idea is to ensure a fluid conversation with the puppet; there should be no lull between exchanges. So, make sure you learn to switch voices as fast as you think up wisecracks.

Tips for dummies. "Hey, stop putting words in my mouth," goes one of the oldest ventriloquism jokes in the book, and that’s exactly what you will be doing as you learn to operate a dummy. But you have to learn puppetry as well. Making the dummy talk, nod or gesticulate in tandem with the conversation is what adds to the illusion and makes your dummy come alive. Usually, vents create a distinct identity for their puppets, giving it its own mannerisms and pet jokes. So the vent is able to slip into his dummy’s personality as easily as his own.

Muppets are usually made of fur, latex, wood, or vinyl, and costs vary depending on the material used and how complicated its movements are.

"The latex ones are the best since they are the most life-like," says Mumbai-based vent Ramdas Padhye. While locally made muppets cost between Rs 4,000 and Rs 30,000, imported ones start at $150 and can go up to $8,000 for the handmade wooden ones, according to Chennai-based ventriloquist P. Venkatesh.

Venkatesh advises vents to work with muppets that have a single movement rather than one with complex multiple moves. That way, the novice can concentrate on voice modulation and on coordinating the single muppet movement with the words. As your puppetry skills improve and voice modulation itself gets almost automatic, you can move on to the more complex dummies.

Finally, that’s what it’s all about: learning how to synchronise your muppet’s moves with your voice. If you goof up on this, the effect will be as disastrous as a Tamil film badly dubbed in Hindi. Fortunately, unlike films, you don’t need to acquire a host of special talents to become a vent, but you definitely need to work on it to become skilled. "It is an exotic art and requires patience, perseverance and practice," points out Venkatesh. "While it takes only six months to learn the trick, it’ll take about three to four years to acquire the art."

Walk the talk. The key lies in regular practice. "Even with 34 years of ventriloquism behind me, I practise for at least 15 minutes every day," says Padhye. For beginners, the routine is more rigorous. According to Acharya, daily practice sessions should ideally be for two to three hours. If you cannot spare that much time, at least an hour a day is a must. As Vachha says: "Consider it akin to the daily riyaz that is so imperative for a classical singer."

But if time is of the essence, age is not. You are never too old to take up ventriloquism. "In fact, older people realise how it can be used to give vent to their inner feelings, which they otherwise find difficult to articulate and communicate,"says Venkatesh.

Foram Shah, Mumbai-based pre-school teacher, uses ventriloquism as a teaching aid. "The concentration span of three-year-olds does not even last a complete story-telling session, but when my frog tells them the story, they are riveted," she says.

Whether for love, money or therapy, throwing your voice around can be a rewarding exercise. Hey, if dummies can do it, so can you.

With Archana Rai in Bangalore,
Vatsala Kamat in Chennai and
Nikhil Mookerji in Kolkata


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