The Full Interview with DADI PUDUMJEE
Indian puppeteer, puppet theatre director, and festival director, Dadi Pudumjee was born in Pune, Maharashtra, India, in 1951. His interest in puppetry began in childhood. Graduating from Wadia College, Pune University (BA, 1971), he studied Visual Communication at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (1971-1975) and trained in puppetry under Meher Contractor at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. Performing with Mrs Contractor's company in Charleville-Mézières, France, for a 1972 festival, he saw the diversity of the discipline and resolved on a career in puppetry. Later, in 1976, he studied at the Marionette Theatre Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, under Michael Meschke.
Q: Dadi, what did you learn from Meher Contractor? How has she influenced your life as a puppeteer and director?
Dadi: I first met Meher Contractor in 1971 in the small, first floor attic of the Darpana Academy puppet studio while I was studying in Ahmedabad at NID. She was the first one who introduced me to the world of traditional Indian puppets as well as to the creative and educational uses of puppet theatre. Being associated with the Darpana puppet group was an eye-opener for me. And, besides Meher being an all round guru, she was also a great cook, so Sunday lunches were always at her home in Shaibaug. Performing with the puppet group at various venues, cities – especially a Ramayana production of Meher's performed with Andhra shadow puppets – we travelled through Europe: Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, etc.
Q: What specifically impressed you about the shows you saw at the 1972 Charleville-Mézières festival?
Dadi: For any puppeteer, a first-time visit to the Charleville-Mézières international puppet festival is an eye opener – the sheer energy, spectacle, madness/frenzy and performances from around the world – is unimaginable! The year 1972 was also a UNIMA congress in Charleville, where for the first time I met UNIMA members and officials… and the rest his history... :-). At that time Jacques Félix was the general secretary of UNIMA, and meeting him and his group, Petit Comédiens de Chiffon… and André Tahon, Philippe and Mary Genty, puppeteers and artists from many countries left an unforgettable impression on me…
Q: How did this experience influence your own career in puppetry over the following years?
Dadi: It opened up the world of puppetry – from objects, to epic, musical, cabaret, to puppet theatre for adults.
We performed the shadow show, Satyavan Savitri, in the main theatre at the festival, based on the version of Shri Aurobindo.
In 1973 the NID (National Institute of Design) had an open house for all on their huge lawns, called "Three Eves". Over three evenings, all sorts of presentations were put on each evening. I remember I did a black light 15-minute piece called Creation based on the genesis-song of songs - Solomon - with objects, actors, etc. It was possibly my first individual production besides the small string puppet reviews when I was in school and college in Pune.
Dadi Pudumjee worked as puppet director and puppet builder for SITE – Satellite Instructional TV Experiment, Indian Space Applications Organization – for the puppet serial, HUN-HAN (1975-1976) in Ahmedabad.
Q: Was this one of the earliest Indian television serials?
Dadi: Yes. The way it was conceived and made, it was maybe the first puppet series with puppets specially made for the same, i.e. not for theatre performances but recorded for TV audiences. I was the puppet maker and director, working in a team headed by the serial's director, Mr V.K. Raina, along with scriptwriters and others... This was mainly for rural audiences with stories from around the world adapted to the local incidents and problems of the Nadia/Pij area in Gujarat…and for community viewing in the villages there.
TV was just born in these areas… Black and white and very new… we made simple rod and glove puppets for each week's episode. The two main characters were Han Bhai (Mr Yes), a village headman, played by a famous actor at that time (Kailash Pandya), and Hun Bhai (Mr Me), a large puppet donkey, a Muppet-style figure, which I manipulated, and the voice of the donkey was given by another famous actor (Pansukh Naik). These two characters performed the roles of narrators/sutradhars in the series.
Q: Have you directed other serials/series for television? If so, could you briefly describe them?
Dadi: I haven't directed any. But Ishara [Dadi's company since the mid 1980s] has made puppets and did the puppet direction for a commercial TV series called Chuna Laga Ke, which was broadcast on Z TV, directed by Sanjoy Roy and Mohit Satyanand of Teamwork Productions. This series was for both adults and children, and it was the first time in India that the Muppet technique – with full studio sets to walk through, etc. – was employed.
Q: How has puppetry for Indian television evolved over the past almost four decades?
Dadi: I would say both Yes [it has evolved] and No [it has not evolved]. TV in India hasn't used the potential of puppetry for TV. There have been some good serials, such as Potli Baba ki Kahani, Panchatantra, Moti Roti… and more recently, in the Spitting Image style, a political satire on NDTV. Besides that, there have been some odd puppet plays recorded by TV channels… and most recently Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Indian version of Sesame Street.
But far more needs to be done, seeing the enormous success of Hun and Han in the SITE days in Ahmedabad.
In 1976-1977, Dadi Pudumjee studied at the Marionette Theatre Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, under Michael Meschke, where he also took a Bunraku manipulation workshop with master Sennouske Yoshida. In 1979 at Puppentheater, Berlin, Pudumjee directed, designed and adapted "The Double Shadow" from a Vijaydan Detha story based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Then he worked at Stockholm's Vår Theater (Our Theatre) directed by Gunter Wetzel.
Q: What lasting influences has the experience of working at the Marionette Theatre Institute in Stockholm under Michael Meschke had on your own work as a director?
Dadi: I was a guest student at the Institute, which was located at the Fine Arts school building. During my first few months there I was on a UNIMA scholarship, and then it was extended by the Swedish Institute. At the Institute, under the guidance of Michael Meschke and many other teachers, I was introduced to various thorough techniques and materials to build puppets, marionettes, glove puppets, shadow figures, bunraku techniques of manipulation, mime (especially the Decroux method of corporeal mime), etc.
Of course also instructive and influential was seeing shows at the Marionette Theatre for children and the adult shows created by Meschke, such as The Life and Death of Murrieta; taking part in the building of puppets for Antigone in the bunraku technique… Seeing great theatre and puppet productions at the Stads theatre and Dramaten was a dream come true, leaving a lasting impression. Perhaps the high point for me was when the Bunraku theatre performed at Riks theatre, which was perhaps the first time the company performed outside Japan, and then Sennouske Yoshida staying back in Stockholm, which allowed me to take workshops from him in the manipulation techniques in preparation for the Antigone performance – something they, i.e. the Japanese, had perhaps never done before for foreigners?
What I learnt in those few days from the master Yoshida still remains with me. I treasure the fan he used to whack us with… he gave it to me at the end… Years later he visited Delhi and we met again. He is one of our greatest Masters.
Q: How has Bunraku influenced your own work?
Dadi: The use of visible puppeteers in most of my productions came from this meeting (as also Meschke's adult productions), and also the process of synergising actors, puppets and puppeteers…
Returning to India in 1980, Dadi Pudumjee was founding artistic director of India's first modern puppet repertory theatre, the Sutradhar Puppet Theatre (later Shri Ram Centre Puppet Repertory) based in New Delhi. The group combined traditional and modern artists, including Rajasthani kathputli puppeteers and bhopa story singers, along with university-educated designers and performing artists. From 1980 to 1986, the group, with Pudumjee as the principal director, designer and also puppeteer, established puppetry as a dynamic theatrical art for both children and adults creating new works like Ramayana, Motu ki Moonch (Fatso's Moustache), Ek tha Joota (One Day in the Life of a Shoe), Rangila Rakshasa (The Colourful Demon), Dhola Maru (The Ballad of King Dhola and Princess Maru), Circus, Circus, Utsav, a show based on three dance pieces, seen as a celebration of life, Monkey and Crocodile and Pakhandi Sher (The Cunning Lion) from the Panchatantra and many other stories, The Little Mermaid (based on Hans Christian Andersen and directed by Gunter Wetzel), Him Jhakora, directed by the late Bela Shodhan, Neena (the tale of a mouse), directed by Vinod Dua…
Dadi: … And Karen Smith made the costumes and painted the faces for The Little Mermaid…
Q: What was your 'vision' as a director of India's first modern puppet theatre repertory, Sutradhar/Shri Ram Centre Puppet Repertory?
Dadi: The offer came just the night I was preparing to leave India to be a guest director at Puppen Theatre in Berlin, GDR, and after that, guest director for one year at Vår Theatre in Stockholm. As I had signed contracts for the year 1979, the Shri Ram Centre waited for me to return, and in June 1980 I joined as artistic director and founder of the Sutradhar Puppet Repertory. This was an exciting period to have a studio, a place to perform each weekend in the basement theatre and a fixed group of talented persons to work with.
We created new interpretations of folk tales, improvised stories and epics in a new way, using puppets, actors, dance, etc., etc. Each performance was very different from the one before… and in the process we created a new vocabulary for puppetry in India. Today, I meet 2nd and 3rd generations of people who had seen the shows at SRC back when they were young. It's very… whatever?!
Q: Was there an intended audience for the Repertory's productions?
Dadi: Each of the shows were for both adults and children as in India children do not come alone to a show, but always with parents or elders, unless they come as part of a school program. And so some of our productions were more for children, while some were more for adults.
Q: Did you consciously want to work with traditional puppeteers?
Dadi: Yes. The traditional puppeteers involved with the Shri Ram Centre Puppet Repertory were from Shadipur Depot [the 'tent city' on the outskirts of New Delhi where many Rajasthani traditional performers had settled since the 1960s]. The late Malu Ram's sons, Jagdish Bhatt and Puran Bhatt, immensely talented artists, became principal performers and puppet builders of the Repertory.
It was also an eye-opener for them to see the new materials, different styles of making puppets and the various puppetry techniques that were employed at the Repertory over the years, as these were quite different from their traditional carved kathputli marionettes… Puran says it was working here in the 1980s that he came back to puppet theatre, and today Puran is a respected artist in his own right, both in traditional and modern puppetry.
Q: How did traditional puppeteers influence your own work?
Dadi: The technical quality and different ways of seeing things… returning to the roots of our culture… dealing with all sorts of egos and problems and good times – between urban and traditional urban artists, those educated in the formal system and those in the so-called non-forma – all these different age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, etc., etc.
Q: How did your work and your puppetry experience influence traditional puppeteers?
Dadi: Well, I can see the influence in Puran's work for sure, in his stress on detail, his way of discussing and problem solving… his stress on manipulation, etc., etc. This obviously then filters to others too, I suppose.
Q: Did you have to train the so-called "modern" performers of your company into puppetry?
Dadi: Yes, in some ways. But each was there because of their own talent whether it be in theatre, fine arts, crafts. There was even training in "modern" puppetry for the traditional Rajasthani puppeteers.
Q: Did you have a conscious "pedagogical" approach to training non-puppeteers to become puppeteers?
Dadi: I tried my best. It wasn't always easy to keep a motley group – age, social, education, etc.-wise, together… Remember how Karen hit the roof and cried once
Q: Could you describe the challenges and approaches traditional puppeteers and the non-traditional, modern performers work together, each group contributing their own particular skills?
Dadi: The traditional puppeteers have great technical skills in their own style, in the case of the Rajasthani puppeteers in string puppets. While we worked with almost all puppetry techniques, so they needed to adapt to these other, new techniques. The modern artists had to be trained from scratch, and this was easier at times to filter down ideas and concepts… So many social barriers and traditions sometimes come into the way of thinking… also gender issues that emerge when working with traditional puppeteers…and also their pride in a family tradition and not always giving away things… But these "differences" were slowly overcome in the process of working together.
Q: How did these dozen productions come about? Who chose the story for each show? Who wrote the scripts?
Dadi: Well, I had a free hand to choose the stories, although [the director of the Shri Ram Centre Theatre] Rajindra Nath and the SRC chairperson, the late Panna Bharat Ram, were informed… The scripts were either improvised or scriptwriters from the SRC actors' theatre were involved in adapting our concepts and ideas. We all worked well as a team. I think the space between me and our group was very close, unlike in many other formal repertory companies in India, and we all realized that we were creating something fresh and very new in Delhi…
Q: Dadi, you were the director, designer, puppet builder and also one of the performers of all these productions. With your academic background from the National Institute of Design (NID), could you talk about the role of design (scenography) in your work?
Dadi: Yes. Even to this day, although things now seem a bit dated, I cherish and value the design skills and introduction to materials and using hand tools and drawing skills that I got at NID. These will stay with me for life. I see at times the lack of this in younger artists. Yes, I am privileged because of this background, I cannot deny it…
Today, abstraction can tend to become a way of overriding certain inefficiencies of or by people, although one cannot generalize. A puppeteer needs to be an "all 'rounder" in India – design, create, manage, and perform so many things… Are we better or worse for this need to be "all rounders"? I cannot say. At times a lot of energy just goes into carrying on and pulling things together, while administrative things could be done professionally.
Coming back to your question about the role of design, the use of colours, textiles, aesthetics, all have been well grounded in me from my years at NID. But I do also realize that styles and cults change with times. Did we have computers back then in the 1970s? No. Were there CDs? No. Most work was done by hand, with a brush, type setting was done by hand… and traditional skills slowly being then incorporated by the modern means of those times.
All do need to learn the language… and then they can do whatever they want with it.
Q: You imbued each of your productions with a special kind of humor that was especially appreciated by the adults who accompanied their children to Shri Ram Centre puppet shows. Could you say something about your "humor," your unique style, which contributed to your being recognized by the early 1980s as one of India's significant young theatre directors?
Dadi: Hahaha! I can only laugh at this but, yes… I still value a crazy sense of mischief and humour, maybe it comes from my Parsi background. Today my shows are more introspective than before. Also, back then we had to work for both adults and children who were our audiences at SRC. One needs also to laugh at oneself sometimes and not always take oneself too seriously. I feel that I'm doing what I love. My late parents supported me in my work, for which I'm grateful. I wish it was so for many others, too, who are working in the field of puppetry or theatre, dance… Today, here in India, it's all more about career options and day-to-day existence, which luckily I was cushioned from… I cannot deny this, but then you need to make something from what you are given… create your own path and concentrate on the goal…
Q: What are the important lessons you took from the six years of directing Sutradhar/Shri Ram Centre Repertory?
Dadi: Looking back, I would say I learnt to be patient, to value the opinions and ways of various people coming from very different backgrounds, traditional, urban, college-educated. Respecting the traditional artist above all… not always breaking the wall but starting by making a small dent/hole/way… to change or at least try to change things…