While many in India, especially in the northern part of the country, associate puppetry largely with kathputli, the string puppet theatre of Rajasthan, which is celebrated puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee’s style, is quite different.
“I am a modern puppeteer,” says Pudumjee. Apart from different kinds of puppets, rod, shadow, etc, there is a profound use of theatre, music, dance, masks and technological add-ons such as video projections.
“It is our style, where we use puppets more as a means than just the end,” Pudumjee says, which was evident at the Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival last month. Bringing to life the work of Mevlana Rumi, the great Sufi poet and philosopher, was his Rumiyana. The theme was profound and so was the use of multiple elements like dance, animations, music, projections and puppetry. All these elements are put together in such a fine balance to not overpower one over the other but for each one of them to flow in tandem with one other. None of the elements is out there, while neither is less important than the other.
“My work is influenced by two things —my design background, which includes the National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad and Darpana Academy of Performing Arts; and my time in Stockholm and the influence of Michael Meschke,” he says.
While traditional puppetry largely includes family shows, with themes like epics and folklore running large, more adult-centric puppet shows are more prominent in the west. Speaking on themes, the puppeteer says it largely depends on the director.
“If it is a good show, even adults enjoy shows made for kids,” he says.
Then there are educational themes. “A few years ago, we collaborated with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) for four years to raise awareness on HIV-AIDS and substance abuse,” he says.
Speaking on the use of puppetry to raise awareness and educate the masses, Pudumjee says it should be used far more than its use right now. “However, when you use puppetry for raising awareness, it should not be just plain commentary, that this is right and that is wrong. You have to put it in puppet language, in an interesting way so that people will watch it. Otherwise, what’s the point of a puppet? It can be a human lecturing on something,” he explains. He has the example of several traditional puppeteers who made creative videos during the pandemic. “I wish that would have been used more by the state governments,” he adds.
Speaking on the power of the medium, he explains, “It is the objective nature that makes what we call the power of puppet. A human speaking and another listening are simple, but when it is an objective thing, it’s like a mirror, which makes it more catchable for the audience.” But for that, one needs to put all the elements—humour, empathy, etc, in place.
On the audience’s interest in the art form, Pudumjee feels it has certainly grown over the years. “This was the 19th Ishara Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival. Through these years, the audience has become more discerning. They want to see new things and different techniques, in both modern and traditional puppetry. Not just that, there has been an increased awareness about the types of puppetry,” he says.
For an art form, evolving with time is crucial, which is evident from the profound use of technology in Pudumjee’s shows. Traditional puppeteers from across India, too, are trying newer techniques and themes, he says.
Suffice to say, the art form is as traditional as is contemporary, and encapsulates every theme from ancient epics to modern societal ills. A prominent and mainstream use of the art form is what is needed.