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Puppetry

The show is on: A street puppeteer; (below) an exhibit in the Folk Art Museum, Udaipur. Photos by author

Puppet on a string’ defines the art of puppetry in Rajasthan’s Udaipur. With deft finger movements, the master puppeteer creates magic and tells stories — with sing-song dialogues — of kings and ministers, a court dancer with her thumka, a snake-charmer who plays the flute.

This string puppetry is famous as a stand-out skill. India also has other forms of puppetry — shadow puppetry of Andhra Pradesh, rod puppetry of West Bengal, etc. In Rajasthan, the art form is known as kathputli — ‘kath’ standing for wood and ‘putli’ for doll, meaning wooden dolls.

Colour-coded

The dolls are carved and painted according to the character depicted. Villainous characters are painted in red, clothed in black, while the puppets of queens or princesses are painted in white and clad in colourful ghagras and local ornaments.

Puppeteers belonging to the Bhaat community were the village entertainers who roved the desert countryside and gave opportunities to  people to break from the daily grind. This was in an age when television and mobile phones had not made an inroad into the rural areas.

Pundits say that the puppetry performed by the Bhaats is more than 1,000 years old. The lead puppeteer has to be multi-skilled, deliver dialogues through the shrill sound of a bamboo reed, move the fingers expertly while the wrist bejewelled with bells keep the beat, and keep the storyline going. The theme can be a folk tale, a praise, a hymn dedicated to kings, an Anarkali dancing in the court, whirring like a marionette, even moral lessons on subjects like dowry.

Legends say that Prithviraj Chauhan, the famous king of Rajasthan who ruled over vast tracts of the state and present-day Haryana in the 12th century, was so impressed by the wizardry of string puppetry that he commissioned the Bhaat community to choreograph a few plays showcasing his accomplishments.

The patronage of royal families helped to keep alive this traditional performing art form. Even during the British colonial times, freedom fighters used this folk art to raise awareness and instill patriotism in people.

However, kathputli went down a spiral in-between with royal patronage on the wane. With the recent movement to revive old art forms, puppetry has also  evoked a new interest. On the heritage sites of Rajasthan, on the streets of Udaipur, you would find puppeteers showcasing their skills. Not all of them flaunt authentic themes, though. Giving into the market demand or taste, some of them indulge in themes like ‘Michael Jackson of Kolkata’,  popular Bollywood actors romancing their heroine, to name a few.

The Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal, a folk art museum in Udaipur established in 1952, has a special section on wooden dolls and details their place in folk art culture. It also runs a puppet show at regular intervals.

Another place to get introduced to the colourful world of kathputlis is a permanent exhibition at Bagore ki Haveli.

Rightful p(a)lace

This palace, on the banks of Pichola Lake that’s next to Gangaur Ghat, was built by Amar Chand Badwa, the prime minister of Mewar in the 18th century. It deteriorated into a decrepit condition. After its restoration, the haveli has become the seat of the Western Zone Cultural Centre of the Government of India’s cultural wing. Besides the display of the dolls in an exhibit hall, the haveli runs a daily evening show of various dances of Rajasthan where the puppet show is a must.

In an obvious thumbs-up to this ancient art, there are even workshops organised to teach the making of kathputlis. Participants also include foreigners. This, its connoisseurs say, is a good omen for the art form.

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