Puppets recount stories of Rajput valour, keep legends alive

Charming Folklore

Over 300 years ago, when India was under the Mughal sultanate, a Hindu prince by the name of Amar Singh Rathore was an army commander and minister in the court of Emperor Shah Jahan.

Once, he sought leave for his marriage and was asked to come back in seven days. He was also expected to bring along his wife to perform a mujra in the court, as was the rule for Hindu ministers those days, but Amar Singh changed
his mind.

He returned only after 14 days, that too alone, which prompted another minister Salawat Khan to hurl abuses and demand a penalty. Salawat did not survive the day as the strong Rajput prince immediately chopped off his head. Thereafter, Amar Singh fled the court even as the whole Mughal force chased him and then he literally flew over the 70 feet high ramparts of the Agra Fort on his horse, landed safely on the other side and escaped in time!

This example of Rajput honour, righteousness and bravery is recounted again and again in folklores across North India, and recently, the Ghasi Ram Bhat troupe of Rajasthan regaled Delhiites with this tale in the form of puppetry! Art lovers, scholars, the old and the kids – all watched in rapt attention as the group performed Amar Singh Rathore: Kathputli-ka-Khel, The string puppets of Rajasthan at Meghdoot Theatre, Rabindra Bhavan.

The Bhat family from Nagaur is known to have been puppeteering for at least five generations now. At least eight members of the family – comprising 86-year-old Ghasi Ram, his three sons, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law and a host of nephews are forever travelling, keeping ‘legends of their land’ alive. The octogenarian artiste informs us, “Though the history of puppetry is traced back to several thousand years, attributed to deities Shiv-Parvati, it is the kings of Rajasthan who have kept it alive.”

“Raja Vikramaditya of Ujjain is said to have kept 32 dolls in his court. The first puppetry show was made on his life and achievements. Then king Prithviraj Chauhan patronised puppetry and other arts; and lastly, Amar Singh Rathore supported us in return for documenting his heroic exploits.” His clan, Nagaur’s Bhat, is etched in history as the poets’ and puppeteers’ community of Rajasthan. King Prithviraj Chauhan’s famous poet-friend Chand Bardai was also a Bhat, the old man shares proudly.

Amar Singh Rathore, of course, continues to occupy a special place in their hearts. Though a couple of more ‘productions’ have been evolved, shows of Amar Singh Rathore outnumber them any day. A small canopy-like stage is set up with cloth emblazoned with images of the desert State. Then puppets are brought down, skilfully manipulated, made to sing, dance and even wage a war! The all-time favourite characters are Anarkali, Sapera and Bangali jadugar who are shown to be performing at Shah Jahan’s court when Amar Singh arrives.

The beautiful costumes of the puppets – especially female, the hilarious dialogues and even more entertaining folk music in the background make Amar Singh Rathore an instant hit. Ghasi Ram’s son, Billu Ram Bhat, informs us, “There was a time when we used to perform the full story till Amar Singh Rathore’s treacherous murder for three hours. Nowadays, nobody has that much time. So we keep it to an hour only.”
One only has to attend a show, though, to know that Amar Singh Rathore still retains its fan following.        

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