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In the Realm of Puppets

Updated: Mar 10

By Tansy Troy

Does anyone know in which state ikat is woven?

Photo courtesy; Anuj Arora

Having spent many months of my childhood in India trailing around remote villages with Mother hell-bent on documenting the vanishing handloom fabrics of each state before modernity forced their demise through severed apprenticeship lines and migration, I’ve a deep-rooted nostalgia for anything involving khadi, ikat, kalam kari, Banarasi brocade or Rajasthani bandani. Coupled with a life-long passion for masks and puppets, any performance bringing all these crafts together, and I’m likely to be transported to somewhere akin to an Indian seventh heaven.

Thus, the final night of Ishara’s 20th Puppet Festival was one for me to relish, as Dadi Pudumjee’s new vision of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale The Ugly Duckling flew to The Habitat Centre in bright new plumage. Be Yourself translated the tale from Nordic fjords and forests to India’s vast jungle, as a misappropriated Duckling came face to face with a host of characters native to our soil – a cheeky Punjabi Cockerel, a vainglorious Rajasthani Peacock and an orphaned Elephant (with wonderfully constructed concertinaed trunk made from kalam kari cloth). 

Almost eaten alive

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

Don't get too close to the true King of the jungle

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

But how can I be myself?

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

I have 500k followers on my LOOKS alone

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

I'm the King of the barnyard

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

You don't look like us!

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

I think this pool's getting too small for me

Photo courtesy: Anuj Arora

Duckling, trying so hard to fit in and be friends with whomsoever she meets, narrowly avoids being devoured by the majestic Ikat-striped Tiger and is almost dangerously mesmerized by the narcissistic Banarasi-brocaded Snake before she discovers the Jungle School, run by Mr Fox: but this much-longed for final refuge proves not to be the dream-realm it promised as Mr Fox is more interested in pushing Duckling to take extra ‘coaching’ to than actually educating her.

In the words of Be Yourself’s script writer Shankhajeet De,

‘The Fox teacher is unethical and morally corrupt.  But he never asks for bribes. He rather pushes the Duckling to a coaching centre.  Maybe he gets a cut in the business.’

Unable to afford the coaching centre fees, Duckling is cast out into the jungle once more, excluded for not having the correct social (media) network or parentage to warrant either friends or education.

After receiving some final advice from a very sleepy one-horned Rhino, Duckling relinquishes her ‘natural gift’ of being an adept swimmer and follows her higher aspiration to finally fly: not as a swan (as in the original tale), but rather as a self-knowing Duckling, taking to the skies with a wobble and a heart full of wonder, while several pairs of giant white wings make encouraging noises around her. 

There were notable performances from all five puppeteers, who played the roles of both puppeteers and performers, often interacting with the very puppets they manipulated: Muskan Arora, T Joshua Chin, Umang Gupta, Kumari Yadav and Vivek Kumar sang and danced their way through this premiere with much panache to Deepak Castelino’s foot-tapping , lively score of both song and rapped lyrics; and there were some moments of absolute awe amongst the audience as each larger-than-life animal puppet (created by Dadi-ji, Vivek Kumar, Kumari Yadav and Gunjan Arora) made its entry.

It was truly a delight to witness such vibrant, inventive theatre for children alive and kicking (well, flapping and flying really) at the heart of our Capital: however, audience members raised on the original tale may be forgiven for feeling a little puzzled at the end of the show.  Where was the wondrous transformation from Duckling to Swan?  Why didn’t Duckling have her moment of seeing herself reflected in new and amazing feathers? After wandering guilelessly alone through a wilderness, would she ever find of her tribe of others who looked like her, flocked like her, flew like her?  Dadi-ji explains: 

‘It was a conscious decision that the ugly duckling cannot be a white swan, fair and lovely . . . in a coloured nation.’

While this makes sense from the perspective of human skin tone, in the realm of aquatic and other birds, I feel that the series of miraculous transformations, first from egg to chick and then from a chick to a fully fledged bird still astound us, whatever age we happen to be. Being a lover of birds and having spent many months in the last couple of years constructing larger-than-life, fabric bird masks for humans to wear, I would have relished a stupendous Dadi-ji creation whereby the Duckling puppet actually transformed into a sky-flying Swan, Goose, Giant Hornbill, Red Necked Crane or any other large-winged bird, to conclude this excellent show.  For the irony of the title is that Duckling isn’t a duckling at all (that is the mistake everyone makes); but a far more majestic bird, and the world of mockers and naysayers is proved redundant through this truth. Perhaps Dadi-ji’s message is instead this:

No matter what kind of bird you are, no matter what your name is, discovering your own ‘inner beauty’ is more vital than finding your ‘crowd’ . . .

Let's fly

I was amazed to discover that Be Yourself is in fact documentary maker and writer Shankhajeet De’s first playscript offering to the world: its pacy dialogue and witty riposte offered plenty of food for contemporary thought for the older members of the audience, lingering as it did in the realm of Instagram, selfies and how many followers the more glamourous characters in the (distinctly unromantic) jungle had. There was a whiff of ‘holding up the mirror’ (or in fact the smartphone) to the spectators for us all to see ourselves actually not being ourselves: for if, now that we’ve presumably grown up, all we really care about is our WhatsApp status or whether or not we’ve got that coveted blue tick, then we are truly acting out someone else’s story in this age we so fondly imagine as being progressive. Our (concrete) jungle, once so rich in nuance, detail and originality, is reduced to yet a more homogenized global wasteland in which the ancient fabric of our narrative is at best commercialized and hyped, woven on commercial looms in factories from mass-produced yarn by robots or workers paid a pittance and sold at extortionate price; at worst, allowed to disappear, die out, along with our real-life forests and their rich bio-diversities, so vital to our collective survival.

Be Yourself with its humour and huge nod to India’s vast and unique textile heritage, poses questions as awkward as the gawky Duckling herself, but offers a sense of joyful possibility and redemption if only authenticity can be truly recognized.  This message offered a fitting close to a flamboyant and packed-out festival which set India Habitat Centre truly abuzz for ten animated days of shows from around the world.  It is a message that will hopefully be mulled over by the many children in the audience; one that will peck away gently at their consciousness until transformation of thought – a different kind of enlightenment – eventually occurs.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Photo courtesy: Shantala Palat

The Great Giantess

Photo courtesy: Shantala Palat

Abstract cow

Suspended acrobats

Giant Spider

Dadi-ji informs me that fabulous sculptures and installations, created by students of the IIAd Indian Institute of Art and Design, welcomed the audience as they arrived. There was also the brilliant inclusion of at least four different puppet-makers (special mention: the very wonderful MESH, a fairtrade NGO working with artisans affected by leprosy and other debilitating physical conditions) selling hand and finger puppets to an eager crowd of budding young puppeteers.

Ishara, Zindabad! May the 21st Festival entice an ever-growing, ever-more fabulous crowd.

(The photos are courtesy of Tansy Troy, unless mentioned otherwise.)


Tansy Troy is a poet, performance storyteller and maker of bird and animal masks, which she shares with audiences at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi, and other parts of India. You can read her poetry in Ratnakosha (Red River, August 2023), and her articles in The Apple Press, a young people’s eco journal which she edits and curates. Her poetry and stories have been published widely in newspapers and magazines. She lives with her family and many other beautiful birds and animals between Delhi, Rohtak and a nest in Manali.

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