In conversation with Shubha Saxena, a puppeteer from Delhi
Q: SINCE WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH PUPPETRY ??
Shubha Saxena: After my college, I joined Shri Ram centre as a puppet script writer. That is where I came across Sampa Ghosh and Ranjana Pandey. Soon after, I worked with Ranjana and her group in Jan Madhyam, and Dadi Pudumjee as a part of Ishara Puppet Theatre. Eventually I went on to form my own theatre group called Rangpeeth Puppet Theatre. So for over the past 20 years most of my plays and productions are under this banner.
Q: WHAT KIND OF WORK WITH PUPPETS HAVE YOU BEEN INVOLVED WITH ??
I have scripted, directed and performed in a large number of plays for NGOs around the country. For example, puppets play on AIDS for NGO ‘Disha’, a puppets production on Disaster Management on tsunami, etc.
Other performances include a variety of work – on environment for the United Nations; on e-governance for Ministry of Information and Technology, Jharkhand; science awareness for public; trafficking of children; etc.
To encourage children to associate themselves with puppetry I conduct workshops with several public schools. I even started a puppetry section in the National Bal Bhawan in Delhi.
Delhi has a few organizations that encourage puppetry. I have been associated with a few of them, like IGNCA for whom I directed a play on Gandhi, and Sangeet Natak Akademi where I’m presently working as Consultant, Puppetry.
I mostly use puppets like an educational tool. A lot of the work that I have done is teaching mentally and physically challenged children through puppetry. Also, puppetry can have a wonderful, therapeutic effect on these children. It is for such areas that I like using puppetry the most.
Q: WHAT FASCINATES YOU ABOUT THIS ART FORM ??
I think puppetry is a very effective medium, especially when the audience is children. Children identify more with this art form. When we started the puppetry section in Bal Bhawan and started taking workshops, we used large puppets and we used to run with it, hide with it and allow the children to play with it. The children would enjoy doing this and treat it like one amongst them. Puppets are an inanimate form where only the audience can imagine a life in it- thus giving it a personal connect. There were occasions when in workshops with mentally challenged children, these children would hug the puppet and tell them all their secrets. They would cry and talk to them, saying “mere papa mujhe pagal kehte hain, kya main pagal hoon?”
It is this that is most fascinating and wonderful about puppets that it clicks with children and acts like an exclusive friend to them, as easily as sometimes even human can’t.
Q: DO YOU SEE A FUTURE FOR THIS FIELD, ESPECIALLY IN INDIA ??
The reason why puppetry is still not got its due in India is because, like most other art forms, there’s no money when you take it up professionally. Most people, who become puppeteers, do so as a hobby and then move on life in pursuit of more lucrative work that fetches more money. It may be a constant in their lives, but it rarely is a priority. Even for my Rangpeeth puppet theatre, there is no permanent member list. People have joined me for shows and left and very few have stayed for long enough. I, in my capacity, will try to promote puppetry, for instance, I have taught my son how to manipulate.
Q: HAVE YOU FORMALLY LEARNT PUPPETRY ANYWHERE? WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN LEARNING PUPPETRY ??
I identify myself as a contemporary puppeteer and prefer doing hand, glove and rod puppets. I think hand puppets, especially, are very expressive. I haven’t learnt puppetry from anywhere, most of it is from what I have observed. My style is influenced by people I have worked under or the shows that I have seen. So I’d like to believe that I’m a self-taught puppeteer.
For anyone who wants to learn puppetry, it is just best to train under some of the well-established puppeteers. Puran Bhatt, for instance, being extremely talented with magic in his hands, has a huge number of people he has trained. Dadi Pudumjee and his troupe can give wonderful exposure to various aspects of contemporary puppetry to any amateur who wants to learn. Besides, Sangeet Natak Akademi also has frequent performances and workshops to promote puppetry.
Puppetry in fact is a very simple and interesting art to learn, even on your own. Professionally people use latex to make puppets, but try using your craft skills and make puppets at home and play around with them. The easiest way to make a puppet is to take an inflated balloon, just the size you want your puppet’s head to be. Wrap it with a thick coat of paper mache. When it dries prick the balloon with a needle. Paint the face on it. You can make the body and limbs with paper mache or stuffed cloth. There you have it.
(She showed me one of the first puppets she made, back in 1989, which she still keeps with her in her office. She said if I just hold the puppet and get a feel of it, I’ll fall in love with this art. I think I already have!)