With strings attached

Traditional craft

With strings attached

In an era dominated by television and animation, the traditional art of ‘Kathputli’ is fast fading. manpreet singh converses with struggling artistes who are striving hard to keep the art of puppeteering alive.

Traditional puppet master Ram Pal frantically chips away wood from a log to carve out a large wooden statue. Unable to make a living by pursuing his forefathers’ profession, he has taken to a wood carving job.

“Wood carving is more stable than puppetry today,” he says hopelessly. “Nobody seems to need us anymore.”

Ram Pal came to Delhi’s tinsel slum, Kathputli Colony, decades ago with his artiste parents who were forced to travel outside their small village in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, to look for work. The colony takes its name from the unique form of Rajasthani puppetry, Kathputli, the string wooden puppet. It has been housing traditional artistes for nearly half a century now.

As the traditional art of string puppetry is on the brink of disappearance, artistes like Ram Pal find themselves faced with new threats of modern technology and displacement, besides battling the old foes of poverty and illiteracy. Some 1,200-odd proud traditional artistes’ families living in Kathputli Colony are struggling to keep their forefathers’ artistic legacy alive.

“I haven’t abandoned puppetry completely. Whenever I get a chance, I perform. Puppetry, after all, is in my blood,” says Ram Pal, who has also picked up a few magic tricks which he performs at children’s birthday parties.

Long journey

The traditional Kathputli artistes’ journey from the princely states of Rajasthan to New Delhi hasn’t been an easy one. Independence from the British rule in 1947 brought in its wake the end of princely states and these artistes were forced to travel outside their native lands in search of work.
It was the traditional puppeteers from Rajasthan who first came and made this colony their new home. Gradually, other street artistes facing similar conditions, and an uncertain fate, followed. Today, you find street performers like magicians, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, mime artistes, bear handlers, monkey trainers and snake charmers plying their trade from this spot. However, the traditional artistes living here are slowly disappearing due to society’s neglect and onslaught of modern technology.

“Our business is going down. People have no time to appreciate our art. And TV is killing us,” rues Vicky, a young puppeteer who learnt puppetry from his parents. He also picked up several magic tricks from other artistes in the colony and performs them at the children’s birthday parties to make his puppet shows more entertaining.

“Sometimes when I perform a magic trick, children say they have already seen it on the TV. It is very demoralising. After all, magic is nothing but a trick. If I knew real magic, won’t I change my life,” asks Vicky dejectedly.

Old puppeteers become nostalgic recalling the glorious days of their forefathers and the respect Kathputli artistes once evoked. A twinkle lights up the old master’s eyes as he narrates an incident when popular Bollywood heroine Hema Malini had got delayed for a public event years ago and it was he who had kept the audience of thousands spellbound for hours with his puppet show. Or how their parents used to devise a perfect puppet out of a corn cob and make it dance gracefully.

Compelled to quit

Far from their native villages, these puppeteers have been entertaining international tourists at five star hotels, dignitaries at embassies, even performing at ministers’ and prime minister’s residences (they present dog-eared photo albums as proof) apart from becoming an indifferent sight at local craft fairs.

Pressed by falling demand, poor income and growing families, puppet artistes are forced to take up other jobs. Professional puppeteers say things are changing, and in that change, a lot of things are getting lost. Many young puppeteers from the traditional artistes’ families are now working in post offices and banks. Some even work as sweepers in malls or as tourist guides.

“These certainly are not inspiring times for Kathputli artistes,” agrees Puran Bhat, 57, who has been honoured with the National Award by the Indian President for his art. Puran has visited more than two dozen countries, organised workshops there and claims to have over 400 disciples in Kathputli art all over the world.

“Audience has changed. Today, even Bollywood stars who were once revered like gods, have to appeal to audiences to watch their movies. Cartoon films have become more popular than live art,” he laments.

But Puran remains committed to his forefathers’ legacy. “Ups and downs are in the nature of the audience. But there are no ups and down in our commitment. We won’t let our legacy down, irrespective of the lack of money and comfort. That’s why we are called traditional artistes.”

Considering the inhuman conditions these artistes and their families live in, it remains a mystery how their art survives. Puran belongs to the older generation of puppeteers and there are not many like him to find. The artistes’ younger generation, faced with a horde of material temptations amid economic prosperity and the utter hopelessness of their situation, may not find it alluring to stick to their forefathers’ legacy for long.

Dilip Bhat, president of Kathputli Colony, looks a worried man. He fears that their unique community of puppeteers and other traditional artistes may disappear altogether soon. The Delhi Government is planning to build a huge residential and commercial complex at the colony’s site. The plan also includes erecting an 11-storey building to house these artistes in one-room flats. The artistes’ experience with authorities and politicians make them skeptical that it might not be a ploy to dispossess them of their precious land in the backdrop of rising property value in Delhi. “We are illiterate. We fear that we might be duped,” says Dilip.

“If things continue as they are, I can see our art soon ending up in the museum,” says 65-year-old puppet master Jagdish Bhat. “Then people will have to import Kathputli artistes from abroad.”

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