Traditional puppetry is on the brink. It’ll either disappear or change


Traditional puppetry is on the brink. It’ll either disappear or change

Dadi Pudumjee is one of India’s best known puppeteers and founder of the Ishara Puppet Theatre. In this session moderated by Associate Editor Shefalee Vasudev, Pudumjee says it’s important for puppetry to evolve, “otherwise it goes into a museum”

Shefalee Vasudev: You studied at the National Institute of Design (NID) and Darpana Academy of Performing Arts

in Ahmedabad. As a puppeteer, what were your formative


Dadi Pudumjee: It didn’t start at NID and Darpana.

It started in school at Pune. It started as a hobby. There was an old British company which made toy puppets called Pelham puppets—string puppets—and a cousin had brought back two puppets for me. I must have been about seven or eight years old. In the sixties, schools encouraged a lot of art, creative work. We had something called a ‘scratch concert’ every month where anybody could get on stage and do things. So I went through that. In 1971, I went to NID. NID gave me a lot and Darpana had a puppet section run by the late Meher Contractor, so I was involved with them. That was what formalised the puppetry. In 1976, I left NID on a leave of absence and never went back because there was the SITE experiment—Satellite Instructional Television Experiment by ISRO and the earth station SAC (Space Applications Centre) was in Ahmedabad. They wanted a puppet serial and I worked on that. One thing led to another and it became a profession.

Shefalee Vasudev: Puppetry is a kind of satire, a reflection of contemporary times and of past tales. Today, if you had to choose between a film like Ra One and Anna Hazare’s movement, which would you choose for a spectacle?

Dadi Pudumjee: Both lend themselves to the genre. I’m not a traditional puppeteer though I work with traditional puppeteers and mix contemporary and traditional work. So do most modern puppeteers in India who are urban-based. All their situations, stories, their work are about what’s around them unless it is commissioned work. Puppetry is not just about satire, there are many other things in puppetry. India has traditional puppet theatre in seven or eight states. It’s on the brink. It’s either going to soon disappear or it’s going to change into something else. Two schools of modern puppetry, one from Kolkata and the other in Ahmedabad, illustrate this. The Ahmedabad school, Meher Contractor style, came with educational and creative puppetry; the Kolkata school came with a very good, formal rod puppet technique from Moscow.

Shefalee Vasudev: Why did you name your group, Ishara Puppet Theatre?

Dadi Pudumjee: Ishara was suggested by a writer, Gitanjali Shree. In 1986, after leaving the Shri Ram Centre of Art and Culture, I was at a camp in Kasauli at (artist) Vivan Sundaram’s place and she suggested the name Ishara.

Coomi Kapoor: Your puppetry has changed a lot over the years. When you started, it was for children, now it has become more artistic, adult. You’ve left the kids behind.

Dadi Pudumjee: I suppose one has changed. In the period 1980-86, I was invited to start the Sutradhar Puppet Theatre by the late Panna Bharat Ram at Shri Ram Centre of Art and Culture. They had the first modern puppet repertory company in India, the centre sponsored about five or six young persons and traditional puppetry people. Vinod Dua was one of our first puppeteers and wrote scripts for us, as did Puran and Jagdish Bhatt, two exceptionally talented Rajasthani masters. Every weekend, we had shows in the basement theatre and it was something for families—children and adults. Ishara runs an international puppet festival and whenever we’ve set shows up more for children, we’ve had a poor response. When we say it’s for adults and children, we get better audiences. Times have changed in the last 30 years.

Shefalee Vasudev: What is the core talent of the artists you use? What do you look for when you put an artist on stage?

Dadi Pudumjee: There has been a lot of cross-fertilisation all over the world in puppetry and other art forms. In traditional puppetry, especially in India, you always had live music or you always had a sutradhar or an orator—getting people to enact with the puppet is something which hasn’t just come through Europe. How you use it, depends on you. At some puppet festivals, you will see just one puppet and 10 human beings on stage. Everyone is looking for different things—dancers and actors in India are using a lot of puppetry. They want to supplement something in their work which makes it visually and dramatically more exciting. Solo actors use masks or puppets. If you observe traditional theatre in India, it encompasses music, dance and theatre, everything.

Pallavi Pundir: Is there any particular technique or school of puppetry that you adhere to?

Dadi Pudumjee: I work more with puppets that are rod or large figures, and I play with scale—from foot-high to 12 to 13- foot-high figures and in between, the human being. I prefer to work with hand-held puppets and puppets which are fixed to the body for movement. We did a piece called Transposition sometime ago, which was a Vikram-Betaal story, and Thomas Mann then took it over and made it into The Transposed Heads. So we had these two versions with us—one was the Indian version which ended as a riddle, and Thomas Mann completes it. Then the Jungian psychologist, Rashna Imhasly Gandhy, worked with us. The archetypes were puppets which were figures fixed to the body so you saw split images when you turned—a puppet figure and a human being with an inner voice. It was an experiment which seemed to have worked.

Tora Agarwala: What has been your most meaningful show?

Dadi Pudumjee: The one that has really worked because of the subject and the way we treated it is, ‘Images of Truth—Satya ki Pratiroop’, commissioned by IGNCA in 1993. The idea was to convey the message through puppets, masks, objects and dance. There was supposed to be humour. We had clowns in it as well. And the organisers got really worried. They said, “Clowns and Mahatma Gandhi? Are you going to make fun of him?” I said no, we are not going to make fun of him, we’re putting a message across in a different way. The protagonist Gandhi puppet was a faceless figure till he is thrown out of the train and becomes the Gandhi we know—it was small, everything else was larger than life and it was with music from all over the world, only without a text. It worked. We performed it to a full house at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC, at the Maximum India festival last year in New York.

Suanshu Khurana: Indians are yet to become connoisseurs of puppetry, despite its long tradition. As a modern ‘kathputliwallah’, what more can be done to attract people?

Dadi Pudumjee: I’m not a historian but it is said that India is possibly the birthplace of puppetry. One problem could be that we have seen so much of the old type of puppetry, we don’t want to see anymore. If someone from Karnataka comes to Delhi and performs, you will watch it as a curiosity. There are puppeteers in Rajasthan who have made new things, who have developed and gone ahead. Some traditional puppeteers are doing well. Many of the young puppeteers from the old families are now working in post offices, banks, etc. Some have gone through college and are now going back or working with their parents, grandparents to try newer things. That could see something of a revival. However, their concept of what they see as modern is still 1920s modern because of the lack of exposure, lack of training. Their technique is very strong but to make something with that is where the gap lies.

Nandini Nair: As someone who has pursued this art form for 20-odd years, why do you think there is a hierarchy that has classical dance at the top, then theatre and puppetry at the bottom?

Dadi Pudumjee: I don’t know, that is something we all need to ask ourselves. I suppose classical dance, music, theatre were the traditional forms. But things are changing—nothing is static, otherwise it goes into a museum—and in that change, a lot of things are getting lost, for better or for worse.

A traditional puppeteer tries to make something new and there’s always someone, godfather or godmother of that group, who says, “No, you are now ruining the tradition”. Why shouldn’t two parallel types exist together? Leave the puppeteer to try and develop different things with his work and I’m sure certain things will work out.

Ashwini Ramesh: Conducting a puppet show includes music players, props and people to handle the puppets. How is the synchronisation achieved?

Dadi Pudumjee: It depends on the types of puppetry. My last work has been more based on large puppets. I don’t use puppetry as an end in itself but more as a means to communicate. So with the puppets, there are actors, dancers, masks etc., but the puppet is the main focus. Like any other art form, if you are a puppeteer, you have to manage, direct, perform…all that comes into being so I suppose you have to know something of various performing arts or allied performing arts.

Suanshu Khurana: How did you start out as a puppeteer? Were you fond of puppets as a child?

Dadi Pudumjee: It started as a hobby. I don’t come from an artistic sort of family, I come from a family which was into paper-making. I would have gone into business management or paper-making but I was fond of art. Puppetry was a hobby and was encouraged as one. I went to NID in 1971. Being in NID was an eye-opener. Whatever we did in the foundation year at NID still follows me. Things have changed so much. Then we worked in the print workshop, making typesets, and if you dropped the whole box, it melted down. Now, when I go back to NID, you don’t see anybody in the classrooms, you see everybody in their hostel rooms working on their laptops. Then I had a scholarship from UNIMA (Union International de la Marrionette), the world puppet body, which changed everything. I went to Sweden, to Stockholm to study under Michael Meschke, one of Europe’s most famous and creative puppeteers and director of Marionette Theatre Institute. I was a guest student there and that’s where the world of puppets opened up—not in a puppet box or a booth but puppets with actors, adult puppetry.

Dilip Bobb: Is puppetry financially viable?

Dadi Pudumjee: Not always. I had the benefit of the support of my family. I do a lot of workshops and exhibitions and curate shows and allied stuff that comes in. A big event is rare, once in two or three years. So you have to make your own way. As in any other art form, it is not easy.

Shefalee Vasudev: How has puppetry changed since 1992 when you won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award?

Dadi Pudumjee: I don’t know. There is a lot of awareness of puppetry—there are seven or eight modern puppet groups in Delhi who do workshops, training programmes. We’ve started something which has really helped, the Ishara International Puppet festival to be held in February. It will be the tenth festival and we’ve got groups from all over the world who want to come to India. We are not being able to expand because we can’t handle it. We don’t have the budget or finance to expand to other cities. We do it only in Delhi and Mumbai.

*Ardhra Nair (EXIMS): Some of your shows are based on topics like Rama-Sita and Vikram-Betaal. When you perform in front of a foreign audience, how do you make these shows connect with them?

Dadi Pudumjee: That’s your challenge, you have to connect. I don’t think the audience has to know something beforehand. It depends on your presentation

Shefalee Vasudev: Have the puppets changed in form and in material?

Dadi Pudumjee: Absolutely. All over the world, puppets are known for their four basic techniques—string, rod, shadow, glove. The word puppet is generic. We don’t have a word for puppets in India. In Hindi, there’s putli or putul. In India, all the puppets are named from the material they are made from. A tol pawa kuttu—tol as in leather, pawa and kuttu is the performance—will be the leather dance or puppet dance that comes from Kerala; there’s tolu boma atham in Andhra Pradesh. In Bengal, they say taarer putul, daanger putul named after the technique. What the traditional artists used is still in use but we have modern colours. We also use cloth and styrofoam, wood, papier mache, or plastic for shadow puppets.

Prajakta Hebbar: Where does the future lie in storytelling and puppetry in India?

Dadi Pudumjee: There are different ways. There is live puppetry, and it can also be on film, like digital animation. There is a need for both of them. In Charleville-Mézières, a tiny town in France, or the capital of puppetry to the world, where the UNIMA office is, there were 300 performances in two weeks from all over the world last September. All the tickets were sold out months in advance. Puppeteers and other artists grumble that ‘koi aa nahi raha hai’ but if you put up a good performance, people will come. Today it is about packaging and how you present it too. You have to make your own way. If I keep doing the same thing again and again without developing, I won’t have the audience who will want to see it. I have to see new things and I will have to try out different things. Change is inevitable in everything. I don’t think it can be static.

**Arjun (student, Springdales School, Dhaula Kuan): You found your passion in puppetry. What would you suggest to young children who might want to do something off the beaten track?

Dadi Pudumjee: As I said, it’s not easy. It depends on you. But I don’t think people take challenges anymore. Fair enough, you have a career, you want to earn money but I still think there are a lot of possibilities. If somebody wants to do something and if somebody is focused on that, he or she will get there.

Transcribed by Tora Agarwala