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Puppetry - a dying art

The artistes looked cheerful during the show. But a chat with them later revealed that their life was not as colourful as that of the puppets



The colourful 'Kacchi Godi dance'

The dancing dolls present a life full of colour and fun but the lives of their masters lack the sheen. The traditional puppeteers are leading a hand-to-mouth existence due to the declining patronage of the once-popular art form, which can be used to entertain and educate both children and adults.

The advent of satellite television, video and Internet have robbed the present generation children of the pleasure of outdoor activities like watching stage shows, street plays and puppet shows. A few decades ago, the puppet shows, which were a regular feature at temple festivals, used to attract both children and adults alike.

The present lack of patronage is resulting in the withering of traditional art forms and making the lives of artistes miserable. If this continues for some more time, the day may not be far off when puppet shows will become a thing of the past and posterity would have to see them only on videos and hear about it from their grand parents.

Vishwakarma, an association of artisans, hit upon a novel plan to attract customers to the exhibition-cum-sale of handicrafts and art textiles organised by them at the Vishwapriya Function Hall on Beach Road recently. They requisitioned the services of three puppeteers from Jaipur during the 15-day exhibition, which concluded on Thursday.

The trio dressed in their traditional Rajasthani attire, were a big draw at the exhibition. The popularity of the puppet show could be gauged from the fact that even the shopkeepers manning the various stalls at the exhibition moved out of their stalls every now and then to watch the dancing dolls.



Palka Ram Bhat beating the drum as the puppet dances in the background--Photos: K.R. Deepak

The artistes looked cheerful during the show. But a chat with them after the show revealed that their own lives lacked the glitter of their puppets. Stress seems to have taken its toll on Kalu Ram, 28, who looked much older than his actual age. He has a three-year old daughter and has plans to enroll her in a school.

"This has been our family tradition since generations and we cannot even think of switching over to another profession. Like our ancestors, all the three of us are illiterate but we have admitted our children in schools. That does not mean they would not learn the family tradition. They learn it after their school hours and we want them to continue it after us, irrespective of their studies," say Palka Ram Bhat and Pothu Ram Bhat.

Recalls Pothu Ram, "When I was a kid, some three decades ago, I used to accompany my father to his shows. I toured different parts of the country along with him. In those days, even cinema shows used to be cancelled whenever there were puppet shows."

That was a thing of the past. Today the puppeteers cannot even hire halls or conduct shows on their own due to abject poverty. They perform only when someone hires their services to entertain their guests at hotels, weddings and birthday functions of the rich and at the annual functions of companies. They earn about Rs.200 a day on an average but the amount of effort, which goes into staging of the shows, far outweighs the remuneration. The whole family is involved in the business but the bread wuinners are mostly a few members.

The women members make the dolls and stitch brightly coloured clothes for them. The beautifully carved face is made of wood and is painted in bright colours. The hands are stitched with cloth and they are stuffed with waste cloth to give it a firm appearance.


The puppets are made depending on the character, which they would represent. In some cases, the head may have to detach itself from the body and dance in the air and the hands have to be specially made for the head to rest on the palms at 90 degrees in the air. Some of the characters may have to crawl on the floor and yet others may have to embrace or kiss each other. The making of these dolls requires great skill and workmanship, which are acquired by the traditional artistes from their forefathers.

The puppeteers from Rajasthan generally depict the tales of the valiant kings like Rana Pratap, Amar Singh and Akbar, the Anarkali dance, the dance of Romeo and Juliet and snake-charmer.

While one person stands behind the screen and makes the puppets dance with the help of strings attached to the hands, legs and other parts of the dolls, the second person beats the drum and tells the story in the form of a song in Rajasthani. The person making the dolls dance also has a specially made whistle in his mouth with which he produces screeching sounds to add pep to the show.

The third person wearing the traditional Rajasthani headgear presents a `Kacchi Godi' dance to attract the public. He adorns the torso of a horse, which is made with wood and decorated with beautiful cloth, and dances in a rhythmic fashion.

Apart from the puppet show and Kacchi Godi, the puppeteers also displayed their wares for sale at the exhibition. Though the visitors thoroughly enjoy the puppet show, there were hardly any takers for the decorative items put on sale. These included dolls, stuffed birds attached to a string with beads in between and small bells at the bottoms, small elephants and horses.

"All our products are hand-made and a lot of effort goes into making each one of them. It is unfortunate that more and more people are preferring machine-made products which come at cheaper rates," laments Kalu Ram.

None knows for sure about the origin of puppetry but it has spread to different parts of the world. The art is flourishing in some of the advanced countries of the West due to its patronage by the people.

It is high time we honoured our traditional arts and crafts, lest we lose them out to the rest of the world.

B. MADHU GOPAL

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