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Passions

A puppeteer's tale

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The dying art of puppetry

Puran Bhatt is striving hard to keep the ancient art of his banjara community - puppetry - from fading into oblivion.

Puran Bhatt is a man with a mission: to ensure that puppetry, the art that his forefathers once nurtured, gets a new lease of life. "Our ancestors made a name for themselves doing kathputli ka khel (puppetry)," he says. "In fact, we trace our origins back to the days of the legendary Ujjain king Veer Vikramaditya. His throne is believed to have been embedded with 52 statues. An art that has such hallowed origins shouldn't be allowed to die," says Bhatt, winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2003.
Having lived the life of a gypsy as a child, kathputli ka khel was the only education he received. "I learnt to count when I was about nine and that was it," he says. "Children like me couldn't go to school because, as banjaras, we moved from place to place, and travelled all across northern India and even Nepal doing shows." He is sitting comfortably on a simple cotton duree in his modest house near Shadipur Depot in Delhi. This area is popularly known as Kathputli Colony, since a number of itinerant artistes - from jugglers and folk singers to dancers and acrobats - chose to settle here. "But, unfortunately, their children, with the exception of a handful, are no longer interested in carrying on the traditional vocations," he says.

The 56-year-old is working hard to change that mindset. Recently, he presented a show, Amar Singh Rathore, at Delhi's India International Centre, the culmination of a year-long workshop with young puppeteers from his vicinity. "It wasn't easy. Most of the kids had moved on to become wedding musicians, factory workers, and shop assistants," says Bhatt. "It took me quite a while to win them back."

The puppeteer says he understands their fears. "I myself once left puppetry to work in a furniture shop. I grew up with puppeteers and wood carving was in my blood," he says. But fate had other plans. In 1982, Bhatt, then 28, went to see a puppet performance by Dadi Pudamjee and was hooked. He made an "instant decision" to join Pudumjee's Ishara group. "My father was upset because the factory was paying me Rs 3, 500 as wages whereas puppetry would give me just Rs 600. But I wasn't worried. Ek junoon ho gaya tha (I'd become passionate about puppetry) and I knew that this is what I eventually wanted to do," he says.

The five subsequent years he spent with Pudamjee at Delhi's Shri Ram Centre "were a great learning experience". When he called it a day at the Centre, Bhatt decided to start afresh. "Together with three other girls, I branched out to form our own group. Soon they too left - one got married, another moved abroad and the third started her own group, so I was the only one holding the fort." That was when he decided to rope in the "immense talent" all around him at the Kathputhli Colony. However, this was not so easy. "The youngsters weren't interested," he says. "They were just looking for quick ways to earn money. Finally, some were convinced, probably out of curiosity, to join my workshop and classes." And when their efforts took the shape of a show called Caravan, based on the lives of puppeteers, the response was warm enough to encourage some of them to give puppetry a serious shot.

Bhatt and his team of young puppeteers have since produced several shows including Dhola Maru (a Rajasthani folk legend), Swagat, Colours of Rajasthan, Magic Flute (based on a Persian folk tale), Khel Yamraj Ka and Dil Badalwa Lo (a comedy). "While doing folk tales is fun, it's always a challenge to do contemporary stories. And now, many of the children working with me are as passionate about puppetry as I am," smiles Bhatt.

Lucky, the eldest of his eight children, nods in agreement. "All of us got into puppetry after we completed our basic education," says the 35-yearold who works on fresh ideas and helps his father fashion new puppets. "The days when charpoys were set up to form a stage with a group of musicians sitting alongside have long gone. Now we keep adding new elements like life-size and shadow puppets. Jugglers, acrobats, and artistes on stilts also appear on stage to hold the interest of the audience," he says.

It is these innovative techniques that have taken Bhatt places. "We've travelled to over 24 countries and I find that videshis are crazy about us," he quips. "Though I never went to school, I am now fairly fluent in English." And his own junoon is to get foreign students to learn the art from him. "I've had over 400 videshi students coming to learn from me - some at workshops in Rajasthan and some right here in Kathputli Colony."

purnima.sharma@timesgroup.com

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