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Pulling the Right Strings: Dadi Pudumjee On Aspects of Puppetry

Siddharth Sivakumar in conversation with Dadi Pudumjee

Dadi Pudumjee is a leading Indian puppeteer and the founder of The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust.

He has served as the president of UNIMA India, as the  president of UNIMA‘s Asia-Pacific Commission, as the vice president  and president (since 2008, elected at the Perth Congress) of UNIMA International. He has also coordinated an Asia-Pacific Commission meeting (Iida, Japan, 1992; Chennai, India, 2002) and an UNIMA executive committee meeting (New Delhi, 2003).In addition to many local awards, including the Sanskriti Pratishtan Award in the earlier 1980s given to young artists to encourage them in their future work, Dadi Pudumjee’s work has been acknowledged with the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1992), and the third highest civilian recognition, the Padamashree (2011) presented by the President of India.
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Siddharth Sivakumar: Chronologically speaking—studying visual communication at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad (1971-1975), training puppetry under Meher Contractor at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and subsequently performing with Mrs. Contractor’s company in Charleville-Mézières, France, for a 1972 festival, and later, in 1976, studying at the Marionette Theatre Institute in Stockholm under Michael Meschke – what are the important lessons learnt in each of these phases, and how have they contributed to your development as a puppeteer?
Dadi Pudumjee: Puppetry was a hobby till I came to Ahmedabad in 1971, to study at the NID. During this time I was enrolled as a student-member of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts’ puppet section run then by the late Meher Contractor. Looking back at both these two institutions and the individuals and teachers there, I see how they have played together a very major role in my creative work. My greatest debt is to the NID where I learnt the basic skills, workshop skills, colour form (no computers then!), the use of various materials all connected to what they now call visual communication. I would have specialised in short film making. In fact I made and edited my 3 minute 35mm Black and White film, and then out of the blue I got a call from ISRO/SPC for the INSITE program. So I took a year’s leave of absence from NID to set up the puppet studio at SAC and involved in the making of the famous serial ‘Hun and Haan’ for their PIJ transmission, this later led to UNIMA and the Swedish Institute Scholarship, to study as a guest student at the Marionette Theatre Institute in Stockholm, where my outlook to puppetry changed totally – with a base from India, I learnt to use puppetry as a means, with actors and other medium, not just for children but also for adults.

But looking back I feel it was and still is the basic grounding at NID which has followed me through all these years.
You learn from wherever you are, and its not only institutions but the individuals who guide you through them that is most important, then you adapt later in life what you have experienced and learnt for each thing that you create.

Siddharth Sivakumar: In an interview of yours you say that puppetry can either be performed, that is, it can be live puppetry, or it can be on film, like digital animation. From a puppeteer’s perspective what is the major departure in this transformation from a localised traditional performance to a globally accessible one?


Dadi Pudumjee: Look, the world is changing and quite fast, nothing replaces a live performance, or being confronted by actually being there, but you have animation, animatronics, films . . . all these do make use of puppetry and have a language of their own, it’s how best you can use them to tell your story. But remember, at the end of the line, it’s the human element that moves all this and transfers emotions to other human elements. One thing for sure you must be careful not just to appropriate the traditional art form, but also to get the artist involved in the new creation in a way that he or she can also enhance his or her own art through being involved with the new medium and technology.


Siddharth Sivakumar:  Starting with India’s first modern puppet theatre, Sutradhar Puppet Repertory (1980), to your own Ishara Puppet Theatre (now Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust) established in 1986, puppetry has emerged as a newly institutionalised art form. We are familiar with Fine Art colleges, Dance and Music colleges, but puppetry and its opportunities still remain unknown to the majority of Indians. Do you think there should be professional puppetry courses and it should now be developed as an independent discipline?


Dadi Pudumjee: Yes it would be good to have a school or some sort of training, but what and how and where?! UNIMA India just recently conducted a Master’s class to see what a traditional shadow puppeteer could teach/transfer to young artists, puppeteers, animators.
The NSD successfully conducts courses in traditional theatre for its students. As I remember, the class goes to a village, where the theatre fol … art form is being practiced, stay there and imbibes and creates something in that form together with the help of the traditional artist… institutes must be open to imbibe and not be four walls to be maintained.
There is no denying that there are many who are interested in puppetry and learning about puppetry both as professionals, teachers, hobbyists, educational institutes etc.


Siddharth Sivakumar:  Modern puppetry has as its ingredient both objects and human beings, it stitches a narration between light and darkness with myths and music, silence and dialogue, and it takes place at a theatre, in a school or on the television screen. Puppets no longer merely entertain children, it educates adults and spreads awareness and at times promotes products and services. Over the years puppetry has growingly become a multidisciplinary collective art form. Dadi, what according to you remains the fundamental quality of the puppeteer as he juggles various hats? Or has it already reached a stage of specialisation? In that case, how does the ‘division of labour’ system look like in modern puppetry?


Dadi Pudumjee: Puppetry has always been an amalgam of multi disciplinary art forms and practises. The evolution today is what started to keep it growing and living for generations. It hasn’t been static, the traditional puppeteer can at times be as contemporary as some of the so called urban puppeteers. In fact their skills though in his or her own forms, are far more honed through practise and generations. As modern puppeteers we must learn certain basic skills and techniques to then divert and create our own forms or performances, otherwise it will just remain a visually appealing sugar coated performance.


Siddharth Sivakumar: In contemporary India, what is the relationship theatre, puppetry and performance art share? Are they always mutually exclusive or do you think, at times, the lines of distinction blurs?


Dadi Pudumjee: They have always borrowed from each other traditionally, you have a Yakshagana Theatre and a puppet style, Pava Khatakali and Khatakali and so on. No art form, I believe, lives on its own. Regional influences, colours, costumes, all interplay and transfer to one another.


Siddharth Sivakumar:  Any plans of doing a full-fledged puppet film?


Dadi Pudumjee: Well some years ago we were part of a south film ‘Belly Full of Dreams’- a full length commercial film with puppets and actors. Sure, if someone seeks assistance I wouldn’t say no. But they have to be sure why we are going to use puppets instead of actors.


Siddharth Sivakumar:  This question stems from pure curiosity, once a performance is over what happen to the puppets? Where do you store them?


Dadi Pudumjee: Always a problem. They keep taking up space, and your workshop studio gets smaller and smaller. It’s very difficult to destroy or chuck them!

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