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The Man Who Pulls The Strings: In Conversation With Master Puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee

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By Kanika Katyal:

Some tall and mighty, others fluffy and tiny. Varied and colourful, and from the world over, they come with strings attached and have taken over the capital’s cultural scene this week.

They are the puppets from the 13th Ishara International Puppet Theatre festival! And this year, the annual festival has showcased some dramatic puppet play with puppet theatre troupes coming all over from Taiwan, Portugal, UK and Iran. The curtain-raiser was a show titled ‘Etc…’ by a Portuguese group, which brought to life many a stories, using foam puppets, objects, sounds, music and movements .

Somewhere in the middle of the happy-crazy-fun-madness, Youth Ki Awaaz got hold of the man who has become the face of puppetry in India, the managing trustee and artistic director of Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust – Dadi Pudumjee, for a quick chat.

DADI_PUDUMJEE

Now in its 13th year, the annual Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival was first held in 2001 and since then, theatres from 90 countries have participated in the festival. As Dadi tells us, “Each year, interest in the festival grows”, and each year consistently, the festival has brought puppeteers, artists and performers from around the globe together to celebrate storytelling through the puppetry arts.

Prem Saarang

One does not simply become a puppeteer

Dadi Pudumjee explains how an artist has to possess a curious union of a myriad of skills to become a successful puppeteer. “Every puppeteer would say that the puppets have a voice of their own. But definitely the skills of the puppeteer are needed. There are more skills needed in puppetry than just theatre or music or dance. In this you have theatre, voice, movement, music, colour, plastic arts all combined and so it’s important that the puppeteer is in some ways proficient in some of these at least.”

The Fabulous Adventures of the Big Bad Wolf and the Red Riding Hood

Bulbul-e-Bismil

Remember the visually stunning ‘Bismil’ song that Shahid Kapoor performed to in Haider?

It is a splendid example of what Pudumjee calls “a fantastic synergy between the director (Vishal Bhardwaj), actor, choreographer, puppeteers and dancers”. Be it the big bird mask that Shahid wore or the puppets in the songs, it was literally the handiwork of the Ishara Theatre group that bestowed upon the silver screen, the true essence of Hamlet, ‘a play within a play’.

Puppetry: A dying art form? Not.

Puppetry being seen as a “dying art” or in grave danger of disappearing ends up sounding ridiculous when one sees the full houses and the media attention that this festival garners. Through its annual international festival, Ishara has managed to create a regular event and space identifiable with puppetry. Over the years it has attracted many non- puppet theatre goers, as well as keeping its loyal audiences coming back for more.

“There are more audiences coming in. We have a limited size, because we do it in the amphitheatre. But the shows have been to Jaipur, Chandigarh, to Epicentre in Gurgaon. In our first year we had just one foreign country and today we have about 4 foreign countries and some of the countries bring in two shows each.”

Pinocchio- The Wood Boy
Etc…

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust has renewed vigour and life into the centuries-old art form by placing it in an urban space and lending it that contemporary setting. Dadi nuances this further, “Puppetry is all over the world. You have traditional and contemporary work, just as you have classical dance forms and modern dance forms. Both are valid and both exist simultaneously.”

Not just for kids

Children’s entertainment’ and ‘birthday party shows’ are some of the common shibboleths associated with puppetry. Ishara’s inventiveness dispels all such conceptions by producing shows which are not only aesthetically appealing but also intellectually stimulating for audiences. “All traditional puppet theatre earlier was for both adults and children”, Dadi explains. “People performed for children and adults simultaneously, ‘family shows’ as we call them. It was only later in the twenties and thirties that the western idea declaring it as good for children, came about. But there are also some performances which are more for adults, like our performance of ‘Heerke Waaris’. It is not for small kids, rather for the youth and teenagers.” The art form, thus, “keeps evolving and growing.

Etc…
The Adventure of Puppets

While Pudumjee finds the performances based on music and poetry more interesting and creatively challenging, his strong belief in the coherence between the medium and the message is reflected through the group’s endeavours on creating awareness on social issues such as HIV/AIDS and substance abuse.

The grass is greener where you nurture it

When we ask him about what according to him is necessary for nurturing this symbiotic relationship, between the audience and the theatre, the puppeteer is ready to pull the strings, “The exposure to it – the platform. The many techniques and different styles that come in from India and the world, that has changed the whole outlook, I would say. It has also created opportunities of work for the puppeteers. The festival itself is a platform formed for puppeteers to perform, and through the years the audience here in Delhi, Chandigarh, Gurgaon has changed their outlook to puppetry. The ‘just children shows’ attitude has changed and it is seen as entertaining for adults also.”

Enterprises and initiatives such as the Ishara Festival indubitably give that boost to puppetry, but are they enough to encourage young people into venturing into the arena? “The biggest problem in India is that we do not have proper training programs or schools. Mostly puppeteers learn with other groups or workshops.”

The state’s responsibility in nurturing the arts cannot be evaded, he affirms. “We definitely need good training programs to lend exposure both to the traditional, as well as modern puppeteers all over India; and this should be more formulised.”

What’s more to accomplish…

Having somewhat overcome my feelings of being overwhelmed, I venture forth to ask the man who has been awarded the Padma Shri, received wide critical and mass acclaim, experimented and succeeded in all mediums, if there are any more accolades he aims to bag. Laughing modestly, just like the hero in a Emile Zola novel, he says, “I don’t know, I don’t look for them. When they come well and good, but it’s not something that one plans. It happens when it happens”.

Small Fables

Not only has puppetry still got it, but it’s flaunting it and how!

To join in the fun, head to the 13th Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival 2015 now.

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