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A festival that showcases puppetry for all ages

Over 20 years, the Ishara puppet theatre festival has built audiences for traditional forms and contemporary styles of storytelling from around the world

‘Petrushka’, performed by Novosibirsk Regional Puppet Theatre from Russia
‘Petrushka’, performed by Novosibirsk Regional Puppet Theatre from Russia

Twenty years ago when the Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival was first held in Delhi, Dadi Pudumjee was sceptical if anyone would come to attend a ticketed puppetry performance. In the ensuing years, however, not only has the audience for the annual festival increased, but the understanding of this genre of performing arts has become more nuanced. There is greater awareness about the myriad traditional forms practised in India and a heightened appreciation for the contemporary language that theatre directors and puppeteers are bringing to stage.

The 20th edition of the festival is all set to open in Delhi next week—again at the India Habitat Centre, which has been its venue through the years—and the lineup features both the traditional and contemporary.

One of the highlights of the line-up is a traditional string puppet show by Sri Lanka’s Mango Friends Puppet Society, which carries forth the legacy of Ganwary Podi Sirina, one of the pioneers of the form in the island nation. This torch is being carried on by his great-grandson Indika and his 10-year-old son Sanush, who are bringing a show that pays homage to the country’s past and present.

In stark contrast is the minimal yet impactful Wings And Roots by Fanny Tissot-Giordanna Compagnie Arketal National Theatre Nice (TNN) from France. This moving production draws on Stefan Zweig’s timeless story, The Legend Of The Third Dove, and focuses on the need for peace and harmony. Then there is the vibrant, larger-than-life production, Air Giants from Brazil, which brings together puppets, balloons, dancers and acrobats as tall blue elephants, dancing giraffes and ferocious tigers share the stage together.

In the past two decades, the biggest change Ishara has brought about is to the perception that puppet theatre is only for children. Traditionally, all forms of puppetry have been for both children and adults. “It is only in the 1950s-60s, in what was then the East Bloc, that we saw special puppet theatres only for children. That is changing now. Directors are coming up with serious pieces, some of which are meant only for adults,” says Pudumjee, festival director and founder, The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust. The festival, however, opts for a middle path and curates a lineup that all members of the family can enjoy together.

 ‘Mucit’ (Inventor) by the Sevincer Puppet Theatre from Turkey
‘Mucit’ (Inventor) by the Sevincer Puppet Theatre from Turkey

That does not mean that the performances are simplistic in either format or theme. In fact, some very complex themes of the impact of war, migration and corruption are tackled, albeit in a way that is accessible to everyone. “Even if you look at Ishara’s own production, Be Yourself,[which will be the concluding performance of the festival in Delhi]—it looks pretty but the subtext is quite layered. We have adapted the story from Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling, but the treatment is very different,” elaborates Pudumjee. In its journey, the duck meets all sorts of animals from different regions of India, and each one has a gigantic ego. They tell the duck that it doesn’t fit in due to the difference in looks. “Eventually, each animal gives something of itself to the duck—the tiger gives its stripes, the cock gives its comb, so on and so forth, making it look like some hybrid creature, until the duck shakes all of this off to accept itself,” he adds. Scripted by Shankhajeet De, and with music by Deepak Castelino, this performance has an important message. However, Pudumjee doesn’t like to shove morals down the audience’s throat, but lets the viewers unravel a performance in their consciousness layer by layer to arrive at their own interpretations of the message.

In recent years, in performances by Ishara and international groups, both puppet and puppeteer are present on stage. The latter is no longer invisible, but an actor in his or her own right. Pudumjee cites the example of Japan’s Bunraku puppet theatre, in which the three puppeteers are visible against a brightly coloured backdrop. In India too, glove puppet traditions have the puppeteer sitting on stage. “In the modern context, actors-puppeteers have started playing a key role in the performance. Even younger traditional puppeteers are experimenting with different stories, and are exploring what they can do without hiding behind a screen,” says Pudumjee.

This year, besides having performances in Delhi and Chandigarh, the festival will travel to Agartala for the first time to commemorate 50 years of Tripura Puppet Theatre, an organisation that has been promoting indigenous folk art puppetry from the north-east since 1974.

The festival will be held in Delhi and Chandigarh from 16-25 February.

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