Just a pair of socks and a bagful of enthusiasm and imagination can enliven a classroom, say puppeteers Sangya Ojha and Hashim Haider

Meet my new friend, Popeye. He wobbles his head, plants a kiss on the cheek of everyone he bumps into and croons romantic numbers in the most inappropriate situations. Popeye is a puppet and he is made out of a pair of socks at the puppetry workshop for teachers, organised by Helen O’ Grady Drama Academy and EuroKids Activity Centre at Book Mark, the Library and Resource Centre. Sangya Ojha and Hashim Haider, who run The Puppetarians, a puppet design and performance company, conduct the puppetry workshop. They hand us tennis balls and bindis to create the eyes for our ‘socksy’ friends.

The Puppetarians, set up in 2011, has kept alive puppetry by conducting puppet training workshops for teachers and artists, across the country. “Puppetry works best for children,” declares Sangya. She explains how the attention span of children is short. They get easily bored by long winding monotonous lectures. “But if you modulate your voice, and teach rhymes and stories through puppets, you will have their attention.”

At the workshop, each of us makes a sock puppet. Sudha, the centre head at EuroKids, as she sews on an arm out of a sock for her puppet, says: “We already use flash cards with pictures to make our classes interesting. But, puppetry is more effective. Children will immediately relate to these life-like toys.”

Just then a squeaky voice enquires, “Hi…How do you do madam?” It is Sangya’s bright yellow furry puppet, speaking. Hashim’s blue and white puppet pipes in with “Oh hi! It is so good to see you”.

In another room, the Helen O Grady team huddles together as it practises for a final puppetry presentation . Leon James, a master trainer, flaunts his puppet, Don Pepe, sporting a walrus moustache and thick eye brows. Soumya Vishnu, from the Helen O’ Grady International, Chennai introduces me to Melody, a pink, bubbly puppet with fluttering eyelashes. “Hi …my name is Melody...I like to sing,” sings Soumya in an operatic voice as she urges Melody to wave at me. “Sangya and Hashim trained us to make these puppets. And, it is amazing how much we relate to them now,” says Leon. “It is a new medium to teach children theatre, innovatively. Each child treasures an imaginary friend within. And, puppets can be your best friends.”

Meanwhile, at the workshop, Sangya and Hashim show us the world of puppetry through a power point presentation. “We tend to think that puppetry is just shadow play. It is so wrong. There are different kinds of puppetry. Did you know the figures in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial are puppets, functioning through animatronics?”

Sangya was drawn to puppetry when she was pursuing her master's in mass communication in Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi. She had registered for an audition and a workshop by Martin P. Robinson, a world-renowned puppeteer. “Initially, thought it was a voice audition. And I was always interested in radio features. But, at the workshop I saw something totally unexpected.” That was puppetry and Sangya was hooked.

So was Hashim, who has been an active theatre professional in Delhi. “We were fascinated with this new world,” he says. The duo was selected out of around 1000 entries and went on to do the Hindi version of Sesame Street, called Galli Galli Sim Sim that was aired in POGO. “The best thing about puppetry is you identify with the muppets you make. For instance Hashim’s favourite puppet is the dreamy Chamanlal Vidyasagar, who is just like him ,” smiles Sangya. It is okay to be mad in puppetry, she says, with a wink. “There are no rights or wrongs. You can be eccentric. And even if someone raises an eyebrow, you could always say, ‘That was not me, but my puppet!’.”