Dadi Pudumjee interviewed by Ranjani Prasad, a student of LSR, DU (2008)

Dadi Pudumjee: Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust started in 1986 and has since then been contributing to contemporary puppet theatre in India. Apart from our regular workshops and performances, we are currently working for a UNESCO EU project on HIV/AIDS and Substance Abuse with members of Salaam Balak Trust, Delhi, in a collaboration with Teamwork films. As a part of the project, which has been on for the past 3 years, we have catalyst performances of 15-20 minutes each for community awareness. Our most recent project is the making of a puppet animation film with the help of Digital Media Lab and IIT- Delhi.

We’re currently very happy with our repertory of performances, which includes Journeys, Images of Truth (based on Gandhi), Simple Dreams (about nature), Transpositions (based on the Vetal Panchvinasati story and Thomas Maan’s transposed heads), etc. Ishara’s puppets were used for various TV programmes. They were first seen on television for ‘Choona Laga Ke’. ‘Funny Things’ was a political satire. There was ‘Eyewitness’, along with Karan Thapar. Our programme ‘Hun Haan’ that we did with ISRO and Kailash Pandya was for a television show for the SITE program in 1976. This was a one-of-its-kind production, which was used to communicate and educate people on the news around.

We also remain busy with our annual Ishara Puppet Festival. Since 2002, we have had 6 International festivals, and have called various groups from around the world. It’s usually held in Delhi but has even traveled to Chennai and Jaipur. The last one, in 2008, showcased and exhibited puppet forms from Spain.

Q: HOW DID YOU START PUPPETRY ??

I pursued puppetry as a hobby right through school and college and eventually it was formalized with my being part of the puppet section and Darpana Academy of Performing Arts at Ahmedabad, under Meher Contractor. I joined ISRO as a puppeteer in 1976 and made our programme ‘Hun Haan’, the first puppet serial of its kind for the SITE program. I then went to study at the Marionette Theatre Institute Stockholm under Michael Meschke, and workshops with the bunraku master from Japan Senouske Yoshida. Also was a puppetry and drama pedagogue at the Var Theatre Stockholm Sweden the Stockholm city children’s and young peoples theatre and a guest director at Puppet Theatre Berlin GDR in Jan 1978 and directed and designed a shadow puppet play the ‘Double shadow’ for them. I was also the artistic director of Sutradhar Puppet Theatre- Shri Ram Center for Art and Culture in New Delhi for a while. Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust was then started, only in 1986.

Q: WHAT MAKES PUPPETRY A POWERFUL MEDIUM ??

To me, puppets are a means, and not an end in themselves. The power of puppets lies in their objectivity. It’s difficult to use people when you’re performing about sensitive issues. But puppets can be used to convey the same message with more impact, without anyone being responsible for hurting their sentiments. They are objective and people find it easier to identify with them. It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror, square as it is! Also the message that puppets usually convey is amplified and many a time, overpowering. I think this is the case especially with Ishara’s performances. We use a lot of music and images, and there’s usually barely any text.

(Some of the senior members of Salaam Balak Trust -Pawan Waghmare, Md Shameem, Vivek Kumar, Anil Kumar, Kumari, Abhishek Kumar- were present in the studio at this time, to practice for one of their shows on drug abuse in their UNESCO project. They pitch in with their points) Yes, for instance, when we are talking about measures to prevent HIV/AIDS, we have to talk about a taboo topic like safe sex. Instead we just make a huge condom and show it on stage. It is important to spread awareness, and this is the best way to.

Q: ISHARA’S STYLE IS VERY DISTINCT ??

Yes, I play a lot with scale. Right from puppets just one foot tall to life sized puppets and humungous masks; Ishara incorporates puppets of all proportions. And hopefully, it has an impact on the audience. I also do a lot of object theatre. There was one play we did entirely with shoes; they were the characters. Even for Simple Dreams for used umbrellas and sticks. I think the use of actors is the major influence that my European training has had on my work. So Ishara’s shows are very theatrical, with puppets, masks, actors, music, dance, etc.
Infact, a very interesting collaboration we did, somewhere around 1989 was ‘Friends and Thanatomorphia’ where puppet and dance pieces were choreographed by modern Dancer Astad Deboo. It was an entirely non-verbal show.

Q: WHAT ROLE DOES UNIMA HAVE TO PLAY ??

Union Internationale de la Marionnette, being the oldest registered puppet body in the world (almost 80 years old) is to function like a network of puppeteers, inclusive of volunteer details, educational programmes, research project and other collaborations. Infact you’re talking to the new UNIMA President 2008 (this happened just 3 weeks back). It tries to work and collaborate with the puppet community world over. Like, UNIMA was trying to arrange something in therapy work in China after the recent earthquake. It’s also working on a World Encyclopedia of Puppetry that should be done by around March 2009. Its Indian chapter, Unima India was started in 1980s, which is currently presided by Ranjana Pandey.