Two strings to the bow
Pioneering puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee on his twin passions of performance and development work.
Photo: S. Subramanium
FACE TO THE DEED Dadi Pudumjee with his puppets.
When Dadi Pudumjee talks about the projects he has been working on, those that are coming up, the long term plans and the short term ones, you wonder how he has the time to sit down for a chat. But Pudumjee is candid when he clarifies, “It is s
ometimes busy, sometimes it’s not.”
But that is the nature of art activity. He describes the work of his Ishara Puppet Theatre as travelling on the twin “patris” of development work and performances. For the past three years Pudumjee has been working on a Unesco project dealing with HIV and substance abuse. Working on it are the puppeteers who now form Ishara’s young, permanent, wing — as differentiated from the array of freelance puppeteers who lend their skills to the company. These youngsters have emerged from Salaam Balak Trust’s care home for street children in Delhi.
The young group also went with him last year to Dehra Dun, to perform at Welham Boys’ School. Later, they were invited by the principal of Welham Girls’ School to spend time on the campus and create a show with the students. “This was the first time we stayed on campus and created a whole show,” he says, relaxing in the ambience of Yum Yum Tree in New Friends Colony in New Delhi.
Pudumjee told the principal that at some point during the month, he wanted his group to address the assembly. When the students discovered that the competent puppeteers brimming with creativity and confidence were once homeless children fending for themselves on the unfriendly streets of Delhi, “there was this huge, stunned silence,” he recounts. “Then the principal said it doesn’t matter where you come from, it depends on your capabilities.” The school got more than a puppetry workshop.
With Salaam Balak Trust now nearly two decades old, says Pudumjee, the earlier stigma of being brought up in a shelter is fading away. Now the tag is even seen as special in a positive way. He recalls when this group went on its first international trip, one of the boys was told by a journalist, “You don’t look like street kids.” The young artiste kept his cool, saying, “If you want us to dress like that, in torn clothes, we can.”
Pudumjee trains his group to be trainers in turn. In twos, they run workshops of their own. One of these is with children from traditional kathputli families residing in Shadipur.
“They come once a week to our studio. They have very good basic skills, singing, dancing, etc.,” says Pudumjee. Skill enhancement and therapeutic effects go hand in hand. “They’ve done a whole show based on themselves with rod puppets.”
Other youngsters work with residents of a girls’ centre, and another set with SBT’s drop-in centre.
What with raising awareness and development work, does he ever miss ‘art for art’s sake’? “They are both running parallel. I enjoy both,” says Pudumjee. And even when it is “art-art”, he points out, “there is still some thought.” Besides, he adds, in awareness raising performances, the medium and the message are equally important. The current Unesco project, being spread out over a number of years, has provided this luxury, giving the group time to decide “what works and what doesn’t work.”
Recently returned from Kohima where Ishara took part in Spic Macay’s National Convention, the group may return to Nagaland to train volunteers of the State’s AIDS Control Organisation.
Meanwhile, work continues on the Ishara International Puppet Festival, whose seventh edition is due in January 2009. The participation of some countries, including Turkey, Ireland and others, is confirmed. “We put most of our earnings into the festival,” says Pudumjee. About 60 to 70 per cent of the funding is Ishara’s own effort.”
But corporate funding is picking up too, he says. Hopes may hang on slender threads. But a puppeteer’s threads are not to be underestimated.
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