The annual Ishara theatre festival celebrates the power of puppetry

Launched by Dadi Pudumjee, the festival brings together puppeteers from across the world on one stage

February 15, 2024 04:58 pm | Updated 05:21 pm IST

Puppet from France

Puppet from France | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There was a time when the word ‘puppets’ conjured up images of toy-like mythological characters handled by puppeteers, from behind a screen or above a box. This is not true of contemporary puppets. These (sometimes, larger than life) puppets love to be on stage. They might be seen dancing to groovy music in elaborate costumes or could be found holding forth in a most engaging manner on contemporary issues. They cannot be typecast. In fact, they demand that you use your imagination and walk halfway to make a story come alive.

Among the puppeteers and puppet theatre organisations that have contributed to this shift, the names of Dadi Pudumjee and Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust stand out. Seeing puppets as a “means rather than an end”, Ishara has put India firmly on the map of puppet theatre companies from across the world through the Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival.

Scheduled to be held at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi and Tagore Theatre in Chandigarh from Feb 16 to 25 this year, the 20th edition of the fest will bring in puppet theatre companies from France, Brazil, the US, Russia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and South Korea. The shows (including one by host company Ishara) will address diverse themes such as world peace, humanity, acceptance of oneself, beauty, true love, the madness of being a pet parent, the need for imagination in science as much as the arts, and peer pressure.

Puppet from Brazil

Puppet from Brazil | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Speaking about the festival’s journey, Dadi Padumjee recalls how they intentionally “started it as a small national festival with low ticket prices”, because they were very doubtful that anyone would “buy a ticket and come to watch puppet shows”. Two decades later, though they have “wobbly knees” before every Festival, he says: “puppet theatre companies are contacting us for slots in the 2025 edition and we have packed shows, with audiences even waiting outside”.

For this, he primarily credits one entity – “the audiences, without whom no show is complete or purposeful”. He calls the audience “the real sponsors”, while mentioning that the festival has run for 20 years “without any sponsors,” of the usual kind. Sponsors still seem to believe that puppet shows are only for children, he says. “Most theatre companies that make it here, come on their own steam. They try to contact embassies of the guest country for support if a group cannot pay for their travel. Ishara’s motivation to still run the festival is only “audience goodwill”, reiterates Dadi.

Puppet from Turkey

Puppet from Turkey | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He describes an audience in Kerala that recently watched Ishara’s Hindustani play on Rumi with Malayalam subtitles. “There was total silence, so we wondered how much of a barrier the language was, but there was huge applause as soon as the show ended,” he says, describing what a joy it is to see audiences step up if the story is told well.

Audiences, especially children, get nuance and complexity, observes Dadi, and urges adult gatekeepers such as school principals and parents to read the synopsis of shows. If not, they end up choosing only the “pretty and highly sanitised shows, because there are so many good shows with social messages for children that must get their audience”.

Not just as a theatre company that supports itself a lot through school shows, but also as storytellers, Dadi says this investment of attention from school authorities and adult decision makers is very important.

Dadi Pudumjee is a pioneering Indian puppeteer and the brain behind the Ishara Festival

Dadi Pudumjee is a pioneering Indian puppeteer and the brain behind the Ishara Festival | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Dadi describes an incident from a school show when the principal felt that the show was “violent” because an oppressed person of colour thrashed his oppressor “very creatively – and in a very fun way” at the end of the play. When she asked the students if they didn’t find the show violent, an “eight or nine-year-old student in the audience pointed out that it was allegorical and they were using metaphors,” says Dadi.

“Finding oneself” or “becoming enlightened,” even in our mythological stories, involves going through suffering and pain, Dadi points out, adding that this is also true across stories from different cultures. “Even in Europe, with family structures changing and the world dealing with a lot of churning, these discussions around violence in the context of children’s theatre and puppetry are happening,” he says, asking what use it would be to portray the world as “pretty and sweet without considering what is happening outside the door”.

And yet, puppetry is not just for children, says Dadi. And nor is it “small,” he adds. Puppetry has theatre, music, dance and more. Having produced and directed shows on Kabir’s dohas, Rumi’s life, Gandhi’s values and on HIV/AIDS — all with music, movement and whatever else it needed to be a story well told, he holds that “educational and creative puppetry” are increasingly well-received.

In keeping with that thought, Ishara’s latest production that will open at this year’s festival is based on the famous story of the Ugly Duckling. Titled ‘Be Yourself’, it speaks of self-acceptance even while shunning the need to become conventionally beautiful. Another unique feature of this production will be the use of Indian heritage textiles (such as Ikat and Kalamkari) for different characters. “The idea is to introduce Indian textiles to children even while speaking about peer pressure and subverting the white swan ending in the original story,” says Dadi.

Puppets on a mission
Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival will be held from today till February 25 at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi and Tagore Theatre in Chandigarh. It is produced by Teamwork Arts.
At the festival, France will present Wings And Roots, which imparts lessons in humanity The musical menagerie Air Giants is a Brazilian circus spectacle featuring larger-than-life animals and whimsical characters. Penguin In My Pocket from the U.S. highlights the importance of imagination in science and art. It features marionettes, rod puppets, audience member puppeteers, and live concertina music. Petrushka, Russia’s most famous puppet character will be brought back to life with a celebration of 400 years of tradition. Hiss & Arf is a non-verbal performance showcasing traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry techniques. From Sri Lanka comes the Traditional String Puppet Show while Culture Art Bakery FFWANG from Korea will present Hong Dongji & Isimi. The Ishara Puppet Theatre Group will present Be Yourself, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.
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