November 30, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

Fostering a New Tradition of Indian Puppetry That Educates as it Entertains

This article originally appeared on the Sesame Workshop India site. VisitSesameWorkshopIndia.org to learn more about Galli Galli Sim Sim and all the wonderful work Sesame Workshop India does to improve the lives of and educate the children of India.

Sesame Workshop in India is committed to sustainable projects that enrich children’s lives long after our work is complete. We do this through partnerships, local development, and by investing in the furry heart of our programs—the puppeteers themselves.

Folk traditions of string puppets and shadow puppetry flourished in India long before our Galli Galli Sim Sim television show arrived in 2006. Yet the program’s Muppets represent something new: a sense of humor and emotional depth that connects powerfully with children and opens them to all types of learning.

It’s this quality that attracted actor Manish Sachdeva, whose work with Sesame Street in India has transformed into an enduring passion. Despite having no puppetry experience before his audition for Galli Galli Sim Sim, Manish was chosen from among 2,000 actors to begin training with master Muppeteers from Sesame Street in the U.S. Learning the unusual art of video puppetry took weeks of hands-on mentorship and many rounds of video critiques.

Manish’s character Boombah the Lion is a playful big brother known to a generation of Indian children. Even during training, Manish was urged to explore Boombah’s persona and make him as real as possible. “I started asking ‘What’s his chemistry with other characters? What does he think?’” recalls Manish. “As an artist, you play with it and make it your own.”

The experience—artistic, technical, and social—was excellent preparation for Manish’s next big role. At the end of his tenure on Galli Galli Sim Sim, he started building his own puppets and a company of artists to bring them to life—The Puppet Studio. In its first year, the group produced numerous videos, hosted workshops for children and aspiring puppeteers, and staged an all-puppet version of “The Wizard of Oz.” And Manish is dreaming even bigger, with ambitions for a feature film and TV series that expand the legacy of Muppets in India.

By investing in puppeteers like Manish, Sesame Workshop in India is helping to nurture an art form that can move people in profound ways, giving a voice not only to artists but to children who might otherwise have none.

Living proof is Ghazal Javed, the voice and hands behind Chamki, the much-loved star of Galli Galli Sim Sim. India’s leading woman puppeteer, Ghazal’s career with Sesame Street in India started during her final college exams in 2005. She’s been immersed in puppetry ever since, parlaying her time on the show into a dizzying array of projects, including scriptwriting, documentaries, a soap opera, performing at the Cricket World Cup, and a high-profile government campaign to promote girls’ education.

But her most rewarding work, she says, happens more quietly. In 2011, Ghazal and her partner, who plays the character Googly on Galli Galli Sim Sim, brought a month-long puppet workshop to an orphanage in the embattled region of Kashmir. Working with children whose lives have been torn apart by war, Ghazal worked to create a safe space for them to share their stories.

Ghazal recalls one girl who wrote about how her father was gunned down by militants. At first, she struggled through tears to put words to her tale. Then she picked up a puppet.

“She grabbed this puppet, which she made,” Ghazal says, “and she stood up in front of everyone. She told about losing her parents and how she came to the orphanage. She didn’t flinch. She did it all confidently—with a smile.”

Behold the power of puppets.

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