Ranjana Pandey interviewed by Ranjani Prasad, a student of LSR, DU (2008)

Q: HOW HAVE YOU AND JAN MADHYAM BEEN ASSOCIATED ??

Ranjana Pandey: I’ve worked with Jan Madhyam for about 20 years, i.e., between 1982 and 1995. Jan Madhyam is basically an NGO that uses various media for community awareness. Where I was concerned, we were using puppets as tools and our performances aimed at spreading specific messages. Jan Madhyam worked keeping 2 broad areas in mind – the community, where we tried spreading awareness regarding women’s issues like domestic violence, health and sanitation, etc & children, both abled and disabled. Jan Madhyam trains a group of puppeteers who perform for some of the shows organized. Back in 1980s, when puppetry in India was rarely accepted without raised eyebrows, we were just 3 women puppeteers in Jan Madhyam. Slowly, more people joined in. Nowadays Jan Madhyam focuses its energies on making children perform and taking up their concerns. There’s also teacher training, therapy work for mentally challenged, etc that is happening.

The fact is that when you are working with NGOs, it is very difficult to separate your work from the organisation’s work and focus. Moreover, Jan Madhyam is not a stand alone group. Often, the shows and programmes are organized by another group, Jan Madhyam only performs for them. Amidst all this, it becomes difficult to keep your work and your identity separate and distinct from the organisation’s agenda. It’s good to be associated with art and therapy and healing, but after a point of time, I was weary of spreading myself thin and at most times limiting myself. This is one of the reasons why I went into teaching at the Mass Communication Research Centre at the Jamia University, New Delhi.

The common perception regarding puppets has been that they are frivolous. They’re often considered synonymous to masks, cartoons, etc. I’d like to believe that during the 1980s Jan Madhyam was the pioneer in creating space for puppets. It was for the first time that contemporary puppets were being used to talk about some serious issues. The shows were well received everywhere and it was heartening to see the audience open up to the medium of contemporary puppetry. For instance, there was this one performance we did in the late 80s in which a beautiful actress falls in love with a puppet. Considering it was an entirely new concept to have puppeteers and actors seen on stage with the puppets, the feedback was surprisingly good.

Q: AND HOW DID PUPPETRY HAPPEN TO YOU ??

I started puppetry long back in 1979 (Oh I feel like a dinosaur when I say this!) while I got trained in Europe (Belgium, etc). I worked with television for a while, but television in itself wasn’t very exciting to me as it doesn’t give you the pulse of the audience. I was working in and doing puppetry for Jan Madhyam. This was the time I tried to combine the best practices of interactive media like puppets with television. We did a puppetry show for television, which included muppets, called ‘Khullam Khulla’. There were about 18 episodes of this that ran through 1989, 1990, 1991. The good thing about Khullam Khulla was that it wasn’t one medium eating into another. The strength of the television show was its puppets and that was very clearly evident. It is very important that the strength of every medium be realized and retained, instead of deciding which is better. Even today, while my students at MCRC in Jamia come prepared to work with or face the camera, the point of having a paper on puppetry is questioned. The point is that there was a time before mass media came into being, and it is very important to have a link between the past and the present to stay in touch with traditions while you embrace modernity.

Q: WHAT, THEN, IS THE STRENGTH OF HIS MEDIUM ACCORDING TO YOU ??

A puppet show is multi-sensory. A good show is what appeals to all your senses. It’s also got this emotional appeal, maybe because it is so interactive and therein lays the power of the medium. The impact that puppets can have is therapeutic. In one of our workshops, we used to bring a little puppet family into the classroom and let the kids interact with them for a while. The puppets, called Choco and Pili became their friends instantly and the kids would talk and play with them. This interaction and emotional connect with these puppets would help us address their concerns.

Q: WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST DEFINING INFLUENCES THAT YOUR TRAINING IN EUROPE HAS HAD ON YOUR STYLE OF PUPPETRY ??

I think a healthy respect for the audience is an important lesson I learnt, thanks to training in Europe. I got to know of interesting materials and techniques, with which puppets could be made. I learnt of other important aspects of puppet theatre, like the difference that lights and setting could make to your puppets. I understood the importance of Research & Development. When therapy work for children using puppets was to be started, large scale research was undertaken regarding it, with help of an NGO called Samadhan. With all the therapy work and teacher training that puppets are widely being used for nowadays, it’s extremely important that R&D find a significant place in their agenda.

CCRT has been doing good work with all the research regarding using puppets in teacher training, etc. Thanks to the workshops conducted by CCRT for teachers, some of the teachers have gone on to become amateur puppeteers. But this can yield best results only when there are follow-ups to these workshops with the same set of teachers, in order to make sure that the teacher doesn’t use the puppets merely as a prop in the classroom.

Q: AT WHAT POINT IN YOUR CAREER HAVE YOU FELT MOST CREATIVELY SATISFIED? AND OVER THE YEARS, HOW HAS YOUR AUDIENCE BEEN ??

I have always appreciated the interactive nature of the medium and to me, creative satisfaction is the maximum when it is with a small group and one can go deep into the subject with plenty of interaction and qualitative learning. That is a reason why I enjoy teaching puppetry at a classroom level and that’s why I went back to teaching at Jamia a few years back (I was a part of the core faculty when MCRC in Jamia was started but had taken a break from it for a few years in the middle) While performing at shows, the audience is sometimes so large that the show becomes more of a spectacle, and the interactive ability of puppets is lost to an extent.

A live audience always makes a huge difference to the performers, and it always helps to understand what your audience needs. There was this one workshop we did with adolescents between 12-16 years and I think that was the most difficult age group to work with. We were trying to break stereotypes, prejudices and demystifying a few hazy concepts that children have at that stage of life and used Bunraku style puppets (Japanese rod puppets). The children received it all very well, and the success of it was a boost to us. There is one area where our programme didn’t really work out and that is awareness on family planning. I think it wasn’t the right time and the audience wasn’t ready to accept talking about such a sensitive and personal issue at a community level. It’s difficult to challenge one’s attitudes, beliefs and morality while claiming to communicate on higher moral ground. By performing these puppet plays on stories regarding the importance of family planning measures we were taking a judgmental stand and I realized that I did not want to compromise the position of the puppet and puppeteer by doing so.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THE GENERATION OF PUPPETEERS THAT EMERGED AFTER YOU ? HOW DO WE PRESERVE THE TRADITIONAL ARTS ??

It’s wonderful that so many new puppeteers from this generation are emerging and popularizing contemporary puppetry in India, and giving it the acceptance that was long overdue. For example, during the time I had started, the struggle was not only to find opportunities to work, but also that you had to first face the prejudices and stereotypes associated with puppets being only for children. Today if an Anurupa Roy goes and says she wants to do a show on HIV/AIDS, they won’t bat an eyelid. However, my concern is that the quality of work may suffer.

Traditions are like water tight compartments; they can’t borrow from each other or influence one another, unlike contemporary puppets. In contemporary genre of puppets, for instance, Suresh Datta’s school has been influenced by Indonesian rod puppets. However, there is a tremendous amount of cross flow in cultures and traditions. With globalization, it’s very hard to prevent such a cross flow. Some of the debates regarding this issue, ongoing amongst intellectuals from this is field, is whether introducing ourselves to newer forms of puppetry from world over will affect the orient forms in India and push them into the background. I believe such a cross flow is good and needs to be acknowledged, as it will ensure that only the best in the field will do well. And in any case, the next 10-15 years will tell whether these traditional forms of puppetry from various corners of India will survive. How long they sustain themselves depends on the kind of exposure they get and their willingness to reinvent themselves. For instance, someone like Puran Bhatt, who has mastered his art, has preserved the original identity of his katputhlis and made space for experimentation. Sangeet Natak Akademi is doing their bit to preserve and promote these traditional arts, by giving work to the traditional artists and having workshops with the next generation of artists.