Dadi Pudumjee is on his toes. After a puppetry performance in Delhi, his next stop is China where he will be on the jury of a puppetry festival. As president of Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA), the worldwide puppetry organisation, he also has to review the groundwork done for the body’s congress to be held in China in 2012.

A pioneer of modern puppetry in India, Pudumjee founded The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust in 1986 gathering loyalists for the art form. Being the first non-European president of UNIMA, he takes Indian puppetry to a world forum. Puppetry began as a hobby, says Pudumjee.

Quiz him how an art, definitely not the most visible, became a hobby, and he opens a page from childhood. “I was given a present of two stringed puppets made by Pelham, the U.K.-based company.” One of the few companies making puppets at the time, it shut shop only to open again. Pudumjee recollects writing to them saying his “whole puppet life started with their toys.”

Puppets kept him company in his growing up years in Pune. He left for the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1971, and, in 1976, took up the project ‘Hun-Han’ for the Indian Space Research Organisation. Puppets then led him to the Marionette Theatre Institute, Stockholm, to study the art under Michael Meschke.

Unconventional career choice

“One thing led to the other,” says Pudumjee. He admits his parents were a “little worried” by his unconventional career choice, but nevertheless supported him. On coming back, he joined Shri Ram Centre’s Sutradhar Puppet Theatre. “We used to have a performance every weekend which had an audience ranging from 10 to 150,” recollects Pudumjee. It was the puppeteer’s time to experiment. He introduced actors, masks, mixed media and larger-than-life figures into his puppetry. “That phase of experimentation has changed,” he says, hinting at the new-age spectators who are at ease with the tools of modern puppetry.

Once a stronghold of traditional puppetry where all the four forms — shadow, rod, string and glove puppetry — were popular, India, says Pudumjee, is yet to grow as a committed connoisseur of modern puppet art. “There are a few places like Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Ahmedabad which have contemporary puppet theatre. Still some of our work is dated,” he feels.

On traditional puppeteers, Pudumjee says, “We have very good techniques in traditional performances. But their repertoire is generally stratified into religious epics and stories. It gets difficult for them to do new scripts.”

The most reckoned traditional form here may be the katputhlis of Rajasthan. However, Pudumjee says other regions with vibrant puppet cultures are on the wane.

“Traditional puppetry is disappearing in the U.P. belt. Bengal, U.P., Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka all have their shadow and rod puppetry. But there are very few left of the stringed puppeteers of Orissa,” he says.

Internationally, Pudumjee says China, like India, has the four traditional forms of puppetry. Asia has a strong puppet history, he points out. As the president of UNIMA, he wants to bring in more Asian countries under its umbrella. “UNIMA has been Euro-centric,” he says.

“We are opening a centre in Indonesia and the one in Sri Lanka is new.” UNIMA also brought out an encyclopaedia of puppetry last month which took 20 years to compile.

On the chasm between Asia and Europe in modern puppetry, Pudumjee says, “Europe has progressed a lot when it comes to contemporary puppetry.” According to him, puppetry was given a boost in Communist countries, so even today a lot of new work comes out of eastern Europe.

Puppetry has always been strung to causes. Pudumjee’s Ishara too used puppets to create awareness about HIV and substance abuse.

Annual event

The Ishara International Puppet Festival has evolved into an annual event. Next year, the event, scheduled for February, will involve performers from Brazil, Iran and Turkey. “There is going to be a women’s group from Iran — four sisters who work with the traditional form. In Iran, there are two to three universities that teach puppetry,” he says.

Also on Pudumjee’s agenda is a collaborative attempt involving dancers Sudesh and Aditi Mangaldas. “We are working on an interpretation of The Mahabharata,” he says, but adds it is still early days for the plan.

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