I realized how this dying art has changed over time.
A few days ago I was invited to a children’s birthday party in Bangalore. It was the 8th birthday of twin girls and a happy gathering of mothers, grandmothers and children of different ages. There were plenty of gifts wrapped in bright shiny paper and delicious home cooked food. But the big surprise was a small stage set up in the lawn for a puppet show. It took me back almost 50 years when we had one for my daughters first birthday party in Defence Colony, Delhi where we then lived.
In those days, puppeteers from Rajasthan roamed residential colonies calling out and looking for people who might be interested in a show. Our little stage was also put up in our garden with dhurries in the front row for children to sit on, and chairs further back, very similar to the arrangement here.
The show began with a puppet dancing to a song from a recent Bollywood film Jagga Jasoos. Followed by a child on a horse to the background song from Masoom, `Lakdi Ki Kathi’. A snake and a dancer with the song `Dil Dole’ from the old movie Nagin followed. The puppeteer played a clay violin, which sounded like the snake charmers `been’. All of us older folk got quite nostalgic as we sat around eating our potato wafers, popcorn and ice cream.
Dancing to Bollywood songs
The birthday girls were given an elementary lesson in plying the puppets and every other child tried their hand at it as well. A delightful show I thought. Simple, fun and so much nicer than the ostentatious garish parties thrown for children in impersonal banquet halls. A long mandatory photo session ended the happy evening.
I spoke to the puppeteer Rajesh Bhatt, as he was leaving and told him about the puppet show we had, when historical tales of kings and queens were enacted, interspersed with short comic episodes. He said his father and grandfather did those. The background songs to the stories were sung by someone behind the curtain to the accompaniment of simple instruments, with special sound effects to highlight certain parts. None of that now…it was all recorded film songs.
Rajesh came from Rajasthan as a child with his extended family and settled in Mumbai where most of them still live. Their ancestral home in the village now lies abandoned. 70% of the puppeteers of Rajasthan have moved out to other cities. He moved to Bangalore 15 years ago and learnt the art from his father. Tradition continues as his 12 year-old son is learning from him. The women stay home and look after the house.
I get a closer look at his puppets. He has 15 of them, all made of wood from the mango tree, usually from its roots as this does not crack or get eaten by white ants. They are all made by professional puppet makers like his maternal uncle, and he stitches the clothes himself.
Internet has killed the puppet star
Today Rajesh manages 8-10 shows a month, which is not enough to keep the home fires burning. So he’s diversified into other art forms - playing the dholak at weddings and birthday bashes, and singing at pujas during Navratri and Mata Jagrans.
He said wistfully that cinema and easy access to entertainment on the internet is killing his art. As I leave the party I can’t help but reminisce : Life was simple, children were easier to please and, my little girl lived at home with us.
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By Anita Gulati
Photographs by Anita Gulati