Man behind the mask

a doll’s life! Dadi Pudumjee at his residence in New Delhi Photo: V. Sudershan  

Dadi Pudumjee is on his toes. Spectators spilled over at New Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre where his team performed “Simple Dreams” bringing up the curtains on ‘Jashnebachpan’ — the children’s theatre festival currently on in the city. The show was followed by an unscheduled one for those who couldn’t find a place in the first. An evening later, he is taking off to China to be a jury member at the puppet festival there. 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.

The afternoon before he flies out, amidst confusions that tag along with travel plans, Pudumjee brings out from the shadows his world peopled by puppets. His Delhi Development Authority apartment at Vasant Kunj is a soothing gem buried in a pile of concrete towers. The living room, tinted brick red, ushers in an old world where a mighty, antique cabinet nestles happily with quaint chairs. A mask on the wall is the only teasing link to the owner’s passion.

A hobby

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 toy puppets made by Pelham, the U.K.-based company.” One of the few companies making toy 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 only to leave it in 1976 after taking 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.

“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 brought 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 to religious epics and stories. It gets difficult for them to do new scripts.”

Disappearing act

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 and 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 new centre in Indonesia and the one at 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 in contemporary work.” 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 always has been strung to causes. Pudumjee’s Ishara too brought in puppets to drive in awareness about HIV and substance abuse. It is at the municipal schools he is keen to perform these shows, but getting permission is often a road block, he adds. “I have got more positive response from the children in the municipal schools. They are far more uninhibited than those in our fancy schools.”

Meanwhile, the Ishara International Puppet Festival has evolved into an annual event. The coming 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 notes.

Also up 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 is quick to add that it is still early days for the plan.


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 2:49:33 PM |

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