Category Archives: blog

Dinner scolding

Jamshoro return and the oppressive heat begins

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Those last 6 hours were grueling. I had to go back to my seat, and could not sleep. It was difficult to get the guy next to me to keep somewhat in his space (meaning occupying half of my space) and it’s no fun to sit next to filth marinated in sweat. The bus would have been fine otherwise.

I was very grateful once we arrived in Hyderabad, and grabbed a rickshaw in the beautiful early morning to Jamshoro. My friend Hisam, once again opened up his room to me. I met his brother and a friend who were studying hard for a law exam. I slept a bit, then got to work making plans for my project. Many steps require finding the right contacts and information before proceeding. This can take time but is essential to getting things done…eventually.

I feel much better, having met some competent puppeteers and established relationships with them. The project is still a massive undertaking and logistically and artistically very challenging, but some steps are becoming clearer and that is basically how this stuff gets done.

I went for friday prayers with Hisam’s brother. We walked from the hostel. It got hot quick. After prayers, we stopped in to Hisam’s home for lunch. I enjoyed a delicious meal and wonderful company. Hisam and his younger brother are both amazing artists and I got to see some of their in progress miniatures. It was very inspiring. We picked up some fruit on the way back to the hostel and I refilled my phone and internet balance.

The heat is oppressive and the mosquitos are relentless. I slathered on some mospel and chugged a 1.5 liter bottle of water while working on blog posts for the next few hours. I also managed some refinement on storyboards for the peacock and snake sequence of the film. Listening to the poetry and watching the animatic always reminds me why I am doing all of this. It really helps me to keep going, because it is the working blueprint of what this film can be if I can pull it off.

At night, Hisam called me for dinner and we went to a University function related to a recent Syndicate election. It was in Sindhi, so that’s as much as I can tell you. I was happy to see a number of friends. I listened to a 40 minute scolding in Sindhi from on of the election winners directed at the entire audience. I felt like someone hadn’t done their homework and we were getting yelled at about it. From the bits I could make out, it was about the challenges and political divisions in the University and a desire to bring about change, and someone didn’t do their assignment and we were all writing lines for it.

Afterwards, having paid the price, we ate dinner. The men descended upon the food tables like wild, ill balanced beasts. The food was quite good as we hovered over buffet tables to snatch up food as it arrived. There was a music program after, but my hosts and I were tired, so we head back to sleep.

It is a huge relief to be back here, having met puppeteers with enough accomplished to begin work on music and various other daunting tasks. Being here in Jamshoro, I have the support of wonderful friends, so if this can be done anywhere, it is here.

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Multan to Jamshoro

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I shared some of the completed videos with the guest house staff as they were interested in what I was doing. It was nice to see them recall puppet shows and enjoy the ones I had recorded. I created a little one sheet for Sadar and his group so that I can put it in the Multan Design College. This way the students have his contact info to hire him as well as a link to the video I edited of the show at their college.

I called for a rickshaw from the campus front gate, but none came, so I lugged my bags down the street and eventually got to one. I put my things in there and head to the Multan Design College, to see Azam sahib, and hang out until it was time for my bus. It was nice to relax for a bit, eat some good food and say thanks. Once it was time, I hopped on a rickshaw with my bags and head to the Daewoo station.

Once on the bus, I realized that the passenger on the seat next to me and I were not going to fit easily on our two seats. He was large and sweaty and wasn’t about to close his legs. So, I sat on the seat behind us for as long as I could, nodding off and getting sleep for bits on and off, until several stops in someone had that seat number. The people around gave me dirty looks.

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Another day of visiting puppeteers

I finished the reedit of the longer performance by Sadar sahib’s group, and I have to say it is much better and went from 18 minutes to about 11. I went to meet Sadar, and we took off to the area where there had been a death in the family a couple of days before. This community is also in Multan, just a bit further out.

We got there and met several puppeteers. Mostly they really were not good. This was supposed to be the day when I would see the master puppet maker’s work. The puppeteers and their families certainly do talk themselves up. Specific puppeteers really are that good, but all that talk gets very exhausting.

After recording several people, I really wasn’t feeling it. Two of the “puppeteers” where literally just pulling the strings and clearly were not skilled. This really annoyed me. The puppet maker, as I was already aware was in Karachi, but we visited his home. I saw two in progress head sculpts made of wood, that were quite nice, but apparently his collection was with him. These puppet sets are their treasure. They don’t sell them. These are for performances, and this is their heritage and livelihood. I did see more puppets that made it clear that they were not all hand me downs and that there were indeed puppets that had been created in the last decade at least, but there is a severe lack of puppet making going on and of this group there is only one that actually continues that part of this beautiful art.

After another day, where there was little quality and I felt like I was handing out money for nothing, I got annoyed. I told them that these were not proper performers. I did not wish to waste time and money on people who were not able to perform. If I did not want to be inundated by everyone looking to get paid to pull a few strings, I knew I needed to put my foot down and I did. This was it. The last day to see puppeteers before I head out to see others in Sindh. I explained how showing substandard puppeteers, even for a directory of puppeteers would not help to promote them and their art. There were several people that I was supposed to meet, but there was more talk and little sign of the actual work. I was very tired of this and let them know.

We ended up heading back to Sadar sahib’s neighborhood with a senior puppeteer from the area we had come to visit as his puppets were there. He showcased a few nice pieces that I recorded and we called it a day. It’s challenging, but important to push back on stuff, otherwise you’ll be inundated by crap. Anyone becomes a puppeteer when there is some money to be made, but thanks to the recordings, I can select the ones that are best.

I went back to the guest house exhausted and a bit dejected, but at least I felt like I had found some good puppeteers amongst the batch. Now on to the next mountain of tasks. I began making arrangements for my next stop.

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More puppeteers in Multan

I tried to salvage the missing edit, without any luck. After a few errands, I went and met Sadar sahib to meet some more puppeteers. We had planned to go to an area near the bypass, across from a hospital, but there had been a death in the family the day before, so we visited people in Sadar’s neighborhood instead.

I spoke to several puppeteers, and made recording amid the chaos of children, livestock and running around. Some people were skilled puppeteers, others just kind of showed up to get paid. This was challenging. It really does no good to document people who aren’t very good at their skill, and nor would I plan on working with them. It was difficult to control that situation.

The puppets vary in quality, size and beauty, but they are the same set of core characters and they all perform the same bits of one larger performance. The quality of narration and music varies as well. I was chiefly concerned with the quality of performance with the puppets. I was not concerned whether the puppet was beautifully painted, or severely aged with peeling paint. It was all about the movement.

It’s tiring to go to all these places, talk to so many people and then make the recordings, but I appreciate that I could even be there thanks to Sadar sahib. I went home tired and treated myself to a kulfi ice cream shake before beginning the arduous task of reediting.

Back to Multan

Zafar sahib and Parmodji graciously dropped me at the bus stand and I began my journey back to Multan. It was March 23, a national holiday, commemorating the Pakistan Resolution. Along the way we past a few melas, or fairs, and these were the very traditional small town kinds with the wooden rides, toys, trinkets, snacks etc. I would have loved to stop in, but the bus does not stop near there. I would have to backtrack an hour or two to get there from Multan. I knew I needed to get back to do some editing on the puppeteer videos. That is one of the challenges of a working trip in that there are things that I would love to enjoy, but I really have to get these tasks done or this monumental effort to make this film will not bear any fruit.

I got back around noon and spent the next 12 hours editing, subtitling and working on putting together videos for the puppeteers’ promotion. I learned some wonderful things about the importance of creating your own backups with Final Cut Pro X. The current version has an option to save a snapshot of your timeline. The auto backups are…not the most reliable. In any other program, I constantly version up and thus save multiple versions of files, but it is a bit annoying that the workflow of some programs discourages this. I had edited, subtitled and titled all 3 videos, when I lost the larger video edit. Needless to say, I went to sleep a bit defeated.

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Um…Faisalabad?


The next day, I had to catch an early morning bus to meet a visiting friend in Faisalabad. While the campus is beautiful and away from the bustle of the city, it can be a challenge when on foot. I had to walk several miles before I found a rickshaw early on a sunday morning. I was worried that I would miss my bus. My legs were tired and I was covered in sweat by the time I reached the first rickshaw. I hopped in and we went for a bit, before the rickshaw sputtered to a halt. It ran out of gas. Once again, I was on foot, hurrying to the bus stand. If I missed this bus, the next would be late in the afternoon, and I would lose the day with my friend. I kept walking until I found another rickshaw to take me the rest of the way. Thankfully, I made it with 5 minutes to spare, and hopped on the bus.

Hours later in Faisalabad, I was picked up by Zafar sahib who was hosting my friend and some other guests who were coming in town to commemorate Bhagat Singh, a freedom fighter from independence movement from the British. They would be visiting his birthplace the next day, but I could at least see my friend Parmod Sharma ji who had come all the way from India.

It was a bit of an odd day. It was fantastic to see Parmodji, whom I had not seen in 5 years, and don’t know when I might even get the chance to see again. His sweet daughters had made cards for me. I remember how naughty and cute Saba and Sana were from 5 years ago. The day itself consisted of press club visits and other manners of more talk and less seeing. I was embarrassed at the display at the press club. The other visitor from India had been visiting for the past 30 years and had worked I was told on peace building efforts. The “journalists” at the press club asked lots of dumb questions ranging from Veena Malik, to questions about things that only Indian Government policy and military people could answer. Similar to press conferences I have seen in India, while the cameras are rolling you see “journalists” asking their “zinger” questions and feeling satisfied and smug about it while wasting a real opportunity to connect people. It makes very clear to me that politicians and “journalists” such as these ones are equally a part of the problem.They have the platform to ask the real questions, to help clear up bigoted notions and strive to uphold accountability. Instead they used their platform and access to play games and posture. At the same time, the guest had nothing to say but, that the problem was all in Pakistan and that India was blameless of any possible wrong doing. No information was to be gained from either of these parties.

I felt that Parmodji, who stood up and only spoke for a few minutes had much more value to bring than all the other people in the room combined. He simply shared that politicians are on both sides would continue to do as they did, but connecting the general populace was in his opinion the key. He shared a few specific examples of how he was contributing to this effort through his organization Yuvsatta and the annual Peace Festival they hold which brings students from Pakistan and other countries to Chandigarh, India. When people meet and interact, then they can connect and find their common ground and love for one another, away from these politicians and “journalists” who are clearly on their own agenda.

We visited a library afterwards, from where Parmodji and I slipped out to walk around the city, to enjoy the clocktower, sites, bazaars and people of Faisalabad. We walked around for a while, then hired a rickshaw to take us around for an hour. There was not much to see, but I guess that is because Faisalabad is more of an industrial town, known for cloth . It was previously known as Lyallpur.

At night, Parmodji and I went out to run some errands, then came back and had some daal for dinner at Zafar sahib’s home. There was a nice mushaira (poetry recital) going on in the drawing room, which I attended for a bit. People shared some beautiful poetry, and I particularly enjoyed the Punjabi poetry. I would have stayed longer, but I was exhausted having been up and about since 5am. I went to sleep.

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Visiting more puppeteers

I called Sadar (Khurshid Ali) sahib, the leader and narrator of the group I organized for the show yesterday. We schedueled to meet at 3pm to visit some more puppeteers in the area. I spent time catching up on tasks and running a few errands before heading out to meet him.

We head over to where I had met Jameel a couple of days ago. We walked through the tent community, greeted Jameel, then mentioned how I wanted to record him with his puppets for the puppeteer directory I am setting up. As a true performer, he insisted on putting together a small setup for a little performance. He put up the two charpoys with a bamboo rod between and then draped them with sheets and a beautiful cloth with windows cut out for the front.

Children from the community were excitedly gathering around as I setup my camera. Jameel demonstrated two dancing puppets. It was interesting to see how some of the puppets had limbs cobbled from dolls and toys. The kids around really enjoyed the puppetry as well. Though this is their community, it was clear that they don’t see this often. Though these master artists are right there, with puppet collections stored in chests, the simple fact that they are not being called often for performances made for an environment whereI feel like I am coming in and getting them to dust of their art and show me the dying embers of their legacy. Yet from the performance yesterday at the design college and these displays in the tent community, it is clear that people have a natural love for this art form and that these performers have the skill to showcase it. Jameel showed me many other beautiful puppets from his collection, and though he said that they can make puppets, it was clear from what I was looking at that they did not. The puppets are old, with chipped paint, in need of a touch up, which they can certainly do once they get some more gigs.

I next met Mohammed Shafi, who at just over 80 is one of the older members of the community. He recalled days gone by when he performed in segments for films such as “Patay Khan” back in the 1950s. It took a bit of coaxing from Sadar sahib to get him to pull out a couple of puppets and showcase them. The children around clearly loved it and he too seemed to perk up a bit once the puppets were in his hands. He performed with a beautiful ball throwing puppet and a dancing puppet. At Jameel’s place, I was shooting the performance with a large cow tied to a stake in the ground, just a few feet behind me. Here, I perched the tripod on a charpoy with throngs of children all around.

Next we visited a singer, who performs with her husband who is a puppeteer.. I took down her husbands information so that I could include it in the directory, though he is currently working in Lahore. Each of these groups were very sweet in offering and insisiting that we have a soda. Many of the challenges they face are clear before my eyes, while others are not really said. I don’t pry on these things, because I’m not here to probe about the difficulty of their lives, to write an article on their misery. Instead, I want to showcase their art, and try to connect them to new opportunities. They have no computer or internet access of knowledge. I want to try and be a bridge for them to leverage these tools for their promotion.

I left Sadar at his place before it got dark, then head out to the Multan Art Gallery to see Afzaal sahib and meet a friend of his involved in puppetry. My navigation reference was a Pakistani Chinese restaurant, but once i got there, it turned out there are two branches in the area. Afzaal sahib picked me up on his motorcycle and took me to the right one. We sat and chatted oin his beautiful gallery. Since I had the gear on me, I recorded a little video of him and his gallery. I’ll edit and subtitle it to get on here soon.

Waqas Falak sahib joined us at the gallery. He shared some exciting work that he is doing with puppetry with his organization Neengar Society. The held a puppet festival last December and are planning a film festival this year. He is a puppeteer himself, with a focus on modern techniques.It was a lot of fun to compare notes and share experiences. Afterwards we grabbed some delicious Chinese food, then Waqas sahib graciously dropped me off. It is a lot of fun to meet all these people doing interesting artistic work.

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Sadar and party puppet performance

I felt a bit nervous and hoped that things would come together for Sadar and his party’s puppet performance. Azam Jamil sahib opened the doors to his college for the performance, and cleared some time in the students’ very busy schedules to attend. We picked up the the 4 person group then brought them back to the college.

Zohaib sahib and I grabbed two charpoys out of the guard room. The puppeteers stood them up with a bamboo pole suspended between them. They lay blankets and cushions around and the stage was set. We all drank some tea together, and each member of the group shared a bit about their work and the beautiful puppets.

The students brought out cushions and made their way to the performance. I asked them to share a bit about their textile art with our puppeteer friends. They talked about the work, then brought out a few sample projects, which I thought was really cool. I asked Azam sahib to present the show, Sadar sahib to introduce the members and then the show began. I was recording using the various gear I had to get enough footage to put together a video to promote the group.

Sadar came out and narrated. while the two female members of the group provided song and percussion. The fourth member performed with with the puppets, standing behind the stage. There were fantastic bits of comedy, curiosity, surprise and fun songs. Each puppet was introduced then performed their bit with Sadar providing the backdrop for each character’s entrance and performance via his narration. It was very satisfying to see everyone laughing, and enjoying familiar songs and just losing themselves in the performance. This was a very sort of modern crowd, worlds away from where these puppeteers are from, but their performance made an instant connection. By the end, the students were making musical requests for the musicians of the group. They too were laughing and I felt like all the struggles to get to this point finally started to amount to something more than mere ideas in my mind.
We stopped the performance there, had a bit of a question and answer session, showed our deep appreciation for the artists, then started packing up. I took some more photos of puppets, then I walked with the group to a local dhaba where we enjoyed a delicious meal and come conversation. Afterwards, we walked back to the college to pick up their things. I recorded short introductions with each member. A few members seemed shy and one said he could not do a second take. I thought it might be because it has been while since they performed and so they feel naturally a bit awkward. They said a bit, but it is not really shyness.

When I watched the footage later on, I realized how emotional it was, after all they have suffered, to be appreciated practicing their art. It was difficult for them to even say their names and what they did in the party, I think because that core aspect of their identity has been such an intense struggle. I can barely even begin to imagine that pain. I have seen the smallest bit of that in the rapid decline of work conditions and work availability in the animation industry which has been very difficult, but that is nothing compared to the hardships and indignities suffered by these fantastic artists.

I spent the evening with Azam, his family and a couple of additional artists. We enjoyed some snacks at night, but my mind was in a daze, thinking of my next steps to do the work I have come for as well as the joy of having been able to get this far with so much generous help.

Days later, after many hours of work, I put together this video of the performance.

Jameel Akhtar, puppeteer

Puppeteers in Multan!!!

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I had set two meetings with puppeteers. I would have taken a rickshaw, but Azam sahib rightly suggested that Zohaib sahib could take me on his motorcycle. Zohaib sahib picked me up in the morning and we were off to meet the first puppeteer.

We reached the dhaba (roadside hole in the wall restaurant) that Sadar (Khursheed Ali) had told me to call him from. I could not reach him on the phone, so we asked the dhaba folks about puppeteers and he pointed us down the road. After several more calls and asking around, we reached a spot in a back alley. Sadar sahib came and met us there. He generously bought Zohaib and a couple of sodas from the shop we were in front of. He shared the beauty and challenges of his art. He knows many of the puppeteer families in the area and having understood that I am trying to make a directory of them, was quite willing to share that information.

Like the other families of puppeteers scattered about the area, his family migrated from Rajasthan during the partition of India and creation of Pakistan. They had continued their art of puppetry, but the last 30 years in particular saw a serious decline due to television and a lack of support from the public and government.

He showed me a script from the Health Department of the Pakistan government. It was a modified version of the script for his show which included a few lines of health awareness thrown into the mix. These artists then travelled to remote villages and performed. This brought the villagers out, providing entertainment and a bit of much needed education regarding health. What a fantastic idea! This project helped promote health awareness as well as supporting the puppetry artists. Certainly, this is something that can be continued.

After several generations in the area, he was finally able to buy a small piece of land, but lacking further funds, he lives in a small makeshift hut on the land. The recent rains washed sewage into their lanes and home. They are suffering terribly, and not for a lack of skills or initiative. Just a bit of support and they can continue this art and benefit others.

He told me about one elderly puppet maker who is currently in Karachi, working as a laborer to work off a debt. These are fantastic artists and performers, who yearn for audiences to share these traditions handed down by his account for a good 300 years. Their puppets are not mere dolls to be bought and sold, but honored performers, handed down generation to generation. He did not have puppets with him, but agreed to arrange a group for a performance. Now I just needed to arrange for a space, and I could hire the group for a show. I felt that this would be the best way to get a feel for their work.

After this, we head over to meet another puppeteer named Jameel, who had been referred to me by an NCA filmmaking student named Hamza (referred to me by Suffi sahib) who had hired him for a segment of his short film. Hamza had generously provided me with lots of helpful information regarding his experiences as well as Jameel’s number. We met at another dhaba near the main bus stop; Laria Adda.

We sat and spoke for a while. I explained about the need for a directory of puppeteers to cut out greedy middle men who restrict access to these performers as well as funding. This way, people could contact them for work and hire them directly. We had spoken about this on the phone. He didn’t offer up any other contacts, but he brought a book with letters thanking him for performances at schools around the country and other venues where he had performed. This was quite a good resume, showing his past experiences. He had a book of photos as with information as well. He kindly brought a dancing puppet and gave me a little demonstration. I could clearly see his that he was skilled, and with more regular performances, he could shine again.

Much of the conversation revolved around the very real issues being faced by these traditional puppeteers. He wondered why with all the arts organizations in Pakistan, that traditional puppetry had not figured into the equation regarding support and funding. I agreed with him. I did not ask a lot of questions. Much of it was just listening. At the end, I requested to take a few photos. I did not carry much money and had paid an advance for the puppet show to Sadar sahib, so I did not have money to give Jameel sahib. This is why I did not pull out my camera to record the performance he gave. I don’t think he would have stopped me from recording, but I feel like we have to understand and respect the situation these artists find themselves in. When we make recording, we should certainly pay something where possible and make a point that when we put that on facebook etc, that there should be contact information for the artists so that they can be hired and known. I plan to return for that. We had some tea. These puppeteers were very generous. They insisted on us having tea etc. James sahib even wanted to buy us dinner and entreated that we not shame him by not accepting.

It doesn’t take much to give another human being the respect that they are due. I hope that I can do that for these artists. Zohaib sahib and I could not stay for a meal, so we bid farewell and head back to the Multan Design College where I gave a short presentation on my animation work to the students who are busy with exams. The textile students were very appreciative. Besides my demo reel, I show students my short film “Gul” and show them footage of the Girnari Jogi Group who created the score for it. I try to instill in students a sense of using this cultural wealth in new ways to stand apart from the pack and while doing so, to make efforts to support and sustain the practitioners of it.

Afterwards, Azam sahib took me to a beautiful hilltop shrine in the old city. There is a really cool handicrafts shop, called the Multan Craft Council there where I got to meet several excellent artisans/artists. I got some ideas on how I could leverage and incorporate some of these works into “Risalo” as well. Azam sahib, his wife Zareen and little son Shahzain have really helped make this leg of the project a lot easier and more fun.

As if all of that was not enough to make for an amazing day, we visited the Multan Art Gallery afterwards and I got to meet Afzaal sahib, the owner of a gallery of beautiful art. He has started an art scene here and it is great.

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Multan Arrival

The Daewoo bus was way more comfortable than the train. I head out in the morning with my cousin Faiza baji. There was a little bit of confusion regarding the departure, so she stood in front of the bus as I scrambled aboard, keeping it from leaving. That was pretty hilarious.

I ate some snacks, and sandwiches that my cousin packed for me. Seriously, my cousins are incredibly sweet. They really look out for me. Faiza baji has also been instrumental in helping me with language skills for my Punjabi comic and another, as yet unannounced project I have been working on over the years.

I saw some interesting art at the rest stop along the way.

We made it to Multan a few minutes early, and I have to say it was a much better experience than the train. I contacted Azam Jamali sahib and grabbed a rickshaw to meet him. He picked me up from the University and took me to the Design College of Multan, which focuses on textiles. The building has a lot of beautiful wood carving work.

Later, he graciously took me out with his wife and little son. He drove me around the campus a bit and then around the city, giving me some great insights into the layout of Multan. It’s kind of like a mini Lahore, with of course a rich culture of its own. His son is a cute little ball of energy, who seems on the verge of learning to talk.

This travel is made so much easier thanks to all these talented artists and arts institutions that I meet along the way. I really love meeting so many artists with passion and creativity, who share fantastic insights and take time out of their busy schedules to generously spend with me.