Strings attached

Strings attached

Strings attached

Alter ego: Pudamjee with his puppet. Photo by author

When it comes to pulling strings, Dadi Padumjee is a master. Thankfully, the strings and the act of pulling have no harmful connections; in fact, they are part of an exciting, creative and dramatic activity.

Dadi, who was born and raised in Pune, is among the foremost puppeteers of the country. He has been a professional puppeteer for more than three decades now.
As the current president of Union International de la Marionette (UNIMA), Dadi is involved in multifarious activities within the country and abroad. UNIMA, incidentally, is the oldest international puppetry organisation in the world. Founded in 1929 in the ‘Empire of Puppets’, Prague, it is not only engaged in propagation of the art but also in promoting the use of puppetry in pursuit of human values such as peace and mutual understanding between peoples.

A graduate from Pune University, Dadi attended the visual communication course at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, in early 1970s. Before he could finish the course, an invitation to create puppets and coordinate for SITE (Satellite Instructional TV Experiment) of Indian Space Research Organisation, turned out to be a highly creative and fulfilling assignment. The experience changed Dadi’s life and he did not return to NID as a student.

Dadi’s formal training in puppet theatre began under (Late) Meher R Contractor at Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad. Later he came under the spell of German-born Swedish puppet master, Michael Meschke, at the Marionette Theatre Institute, Stockholm, Sweden (1976-78). In Stockholm, he also attended a training workshop in Bunraku puppetry/ manipulation under the guidance of another master puppeteer, Sennouske Yoshida.

Dadi has taught creative drama and puppetry at GD Somani school, Bombay, and Vår Theater, Stockholm, Sweden. He has also been the guest director at Puppen Theatre, Berlin (1979), and artistic director of Sutradhar Puppet Theatre, New Delhi (1980-86).
Winner of several awards such as Sangeet Natak Academy National Award and Sanskriti Pratisthan award, Dadi has held prestigious official positions by virtue of his pioneering work in puppetry.

Over the years, he and his troupes have performed and conducted numerous puppetry workshops within the country and outside. As staunch believers in the power of the puppet, Dadi and his associates have exploited its utility in education, entertainment and social spheres.

Dadi is particularly proud of the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust which he helped set up in 1986; he is now its Managing Trustee and artistic director. The Trust works with young homeless children who have no access to basic and formal education. “These young boys and girls are very talented,” says Dadi. “With some guidance, training and understanding, they have become professional performers. Some of them have even started training others, setting up their own troupes and making a mark in television and other mediums.”

Dadi, who was in Bangalore recently with his Ishara troupe to perform at the Arts Education Conference, declares that puppetry is a means and not an end in itself.  “In Europe, during World War II, puppetry was used to keep languages alive… In Ishara, we have used puppetry to create many awareness programmes on HIV and drug abuse. We have extensively performed in schools, colleges, and other forums.”

Puppets can take on very simple to very complex subjects, says Dadi. In his stimulating live demonstrations, he shows how everyday objects — like shoes, spoons, bags and purses — can be turned into puppets and become effective tools of communication. He also explains how most puppets are figurative and can be made using paper, cloth, wood, rags, paper, plastic and such material. While colour and material define the external form of the puppet, for a performance to succeed there has to be an intimate relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet. “It is like a vessel. Both the puppeteer and the audience will have to put their life into it.”

And who is good puppeteer? “One who knows his puppet well, and as importantly, knows the art of manipulation. A good puppeteer never forgets that a puppet is always for an audience. It has to touch the audience —  directly and immediately.”
If so, what is the difference between a puppet and a stage actor? “Ego! A puppet has no ego whatsoever. Also, unlike an actor, the puppet does not age. And, unlike a doll, a puppet always expresses and emotes.”

Watching the performance of Ishara, one cannot but marvel the power of the puppet to communicate, entertain and keep the audience on the edge. “I am also constantly reinventing,” confides Dadi. “In most of our performances, it is like a complete theatre — action, dance, music, light, drama… It requires a high degree of coordination between performers and off-stage crew. We lay emphasis both on the content and the production values.”

Is there any distinction between traditional and contemporary puppetry? “No, not at all. There are no exclusive domains. Form and content may differ, but the language of puppetry is the same.”

Dadi also firmly believes that puppetry is not a static but a dynamic art form; it should be open to channels of development and should not be allowed to stagnate. “When we speak of ‘preserving’ art forms like puppetry, we should realise that it can be double-edged. Just preservation can turn an energetic art form into a docile museum piece. Instead, the art form should constantly evolve, develop, and progress.”

Dadi welcomes collaborations of puppetry with other mediums like theatre, musical concerts, television, cinema and fine art, provided “we are on an equal footing; it can’t be that puppetry is used as a secondary medium of lesser importance or only as a prop.”
Dadi agrees that there are many challenges confronting today’s puppeteer. “Yes, there are problems particularly in balancing aesthetic and commercial aspects. But there is hope too. My experience has shown that it is not impossible to transcend boundaries, overcome misconceptions and elevate one’s work to a truly universal level.”

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