Michael : The talking doll that shaped millions of childhoods

Posted by Kaahon Desk On November 14, 2019

Ventriloquism is generally known as the act of stagecraft where the ventriloquist uses and modulates his/her own voice to make it sound like it’s coming from a distance or from an external object or source. The term ‘ventriloquism’ means “speaking from the belly”. It comes from the two Latin words ‘ventri’ meaning belly and ‘loqui’ meaning speaking. This specific art of ventriloquism requires the art of speaking with the tip of the tongue without moving the face or even the mouth. In addition to that, it requires the ventriloquist to “throw” his voice and disguise it such that it sounds different than usual. This adds to the effect of the sound illusion. Ventriloquists are mostly seen performing with a puppeteer prop. This puppeteer prop is known as the dummy, but more popularly, it is known as “talking doll”.

The human ear is not too good at locating sound sources without the help of visual cues. Thus, when a spectator hears a voice and looks at the doll moving its mouth (while its operator’s lips remain still), it makes the spectator believe that the sound is actually coming from the mouth of the dummy. Generally, professional ventriloquists create a voice for his/her dummy that is quite distinct from his/her normal voice. This distinction allows the ventriloquist to participate in a conversation with the dummy. In fact, many popular ventriloquists have different, unique voices, personalities and ways of speaking for the different dummies that they operate. The process in which a professional ventriloquist operates the dummy or the talking doll isn’t quite easy. In order to make the audience believe that it’s indeed the doll talking, the ventriloquist must be very careful of not moving his lips throughout the act. While most of the letters and words are easy to pronounce, some of them, like B, F, P, M, V, W, are quite difficult. If they need to be pronounced properly, the lips would have to meet and the audience will doubt the credibility. To avoid such a mishap, ventriloquists apply two methods – the first one is to learn how to produce these sounds by replacing them with other similar sounds and the second one is by speaking quickly so that the audience doesn’t notice. There are certain rules that a ventriloquist must follow while doing the act. He must open his mouth as little as possible for the breath to escape slowly. Next, both sets of teeth must touch partly while the tongue hides behind. While speaking, the ventriloquist must use only the tip of his/her tongue to make the act unnoticeable. This creates pressure on the vocal chords and leads to a perfect diffusion of the sound. More the pressure better the sound illusion. The sound that is produced by the performer then hits the face of the dummy and reflects towards the audience to hear it; making it seem like the doll is talking.

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These dummies are usually soft cloth or foam puppets, flexible latex puppets and the traditional hard-headed knee figures. Earlier, the dummies consisted of a hard wooden structure. Nowadays, they are also being made from fiber-glass reinforced resins, urethane, rigid latex and neoprene. The size of the dummies is usually between 12 inches and 42 inches in height.

The art of ventriloquism was originally a religious practice that had first begun among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Traces of the craft have also been found in Hebrew and Egyptian archaeology. There is historical evidence that several communities of people too were adepts in the craft of ventriloquism. Some of those communities were the Zulus, the Maoris and the Inuits. The voices created from the belly were considered to be the voices of spirits and dead beings. Apparently, these spirits resided in the stomach of the ventriloquist. Thought to be witchcraft in the Middle Ages, ventriloquism was also used for ritual purposes in many other countries. The ventriloquists or performers were considered to be mediums between the living and the dead. To be more specific, they were considered to have the ability to communicate and interpret the words of the dead. Besides, these performers were thought to be able to foretell the future as well as cast out evil spirits. To make everyone believe this whole act of deception, the modulated high-pitched voice of the ventriloquists added to the credibility of the event. It’s not unusual that women who practiced the craft were accused of being witched and burnt alive. The first known ventriloquist was Louis Brabant, a valet to King Francis I of France in the 16th century. Even though the earliest record of the craft dates back to the year of 1753 AD, England, ventriloquism has been in practice for several thousands of years as ritual purposes. In the 18th century, ventriloquism became less of a spiritual craft and more of a performance art. During this time, the techniques of the art were perfected and became well known in India and China too. By the 19th century, this performance art shed its mystical trappings and gained popularity as a stage magic act in travelling fairs.

Ventriloquism made its place in the U.S. and Europe in the field of popular entertainment. Considered to be the Father of Modern Ventriloquism, Fred Russell had begun his stage shows at the Palace Theatre in London in 1886. It was Russell who had developed the unique, now familiar, technique of having a dialogical exchange between his dummy Coster Joe and himself. His successful comical format of the act was highly appreciated by the audience and was later taken up by the next generation of ventriloquists. M.M. Roy and Y.K. Padhye had introduced the stagecraft in India and were the pioneers of ventriloquism in this country. The latter’s son R. Padhye popularized the craft among the masses through his performance on television. Women too have contributed to the field of ventriloquism. One of them was Indusree from Bangalore, who used to operate 3 dummies simultaneously. Mimicrist Srinivos had popularized ventriloquism by naming it ‘Sound Illusion’. In fact, he was the first one to perform with his dummy by going into the audience without a microphone and entertaining them with point blank sound illusion.

Not only is the art only for entertainment purposes for children but also for stating strong political statements through the mouth of an inanimate object. Often, the dummy becomes a weapon of protest and revolt. But in recent times, after the advent of modern technology and the emergence of better and advanced entertainment medium, the popularity of ventriloquism decreased for a period of time. The record of 400 full time ventriloquists in the 1950s and 1960s had dropped down to an all-time low of only 15 full time ventriloquists in 2010 in the UK. Although the art is dying out, there is only a handful of performers all over the world struggling to keep ventriloquism alive.

One of them is definitely Shri Prabir Kumar Das here in India who became quite popular entertainer with his dummy, the talking doll, Mr. Michael in mid 70s and 80s at the beginning days of Doordarshan, the state funded national television of India. His ventriloquism show was essentially in Bengali and was aired on Bengali regional Doordarshan channel only. His Michael was a craze among the children in those days and in fact Michael had become so close to the kid’s world that the kids used to emote with him in true sense. Here in this video Shri Prabir Kumar Das narrates his long journey with Michael and enlightens us about the craft of ventriloquism with his simplistic style in communication.


Kankabati Banerjee
She has completed Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. Having thespians as parents, her interest in theatre was evergrowing. The pen is believed to be mightier than the sword but she feels performance has the greatest power to change the world. This change must come from within, emotionally and spiritually.

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