Hanging on a String of Hope

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A pain to play with Prakash Bhat tries hard to keep puppetry alive despite the odds. Photos: Sunil Yadav
A pain to play with Prakash Bhat tries hard to keep puppetry alive despite the odds. Photos: Sunil Yadav

O Ladli luma re luma, o ladli luma re luma, luma jhuma luma jhuma maro gorband nakhralo… (My dear one, finely decked, onw ho walks with a spring in her step)goes the Rajasthani folk song. In the serpentine lanes of Jaipur’s Kathputli colony, barely 500 metres away from the Rajasthan state Assembly, the artistes who gave the nation its most popular form of string puppetry and the state, a major part of its identity, are struggling to make ends meet. Hailing from Nagaur district of Rajasthan, the Bhat community is believed to be the first to develop traditional Indian puppetry and introduce it to West Bengal and other parts of the country. Travelling to villages and cities for a period of six months, the show used to regale romantic stories of Radha-Krishna and folklore of Amar Singh Rathore to the masses that flocked the grounds. Today, the state of the art form can be guaged from the words of an autorickshaw driver in Jaipur. “I don’t recall Kathputli shows in Jaipur. Not in the past decade at least. I recall seeing them during my childhood but now, if you are lucky, you might get to catch them in village melas (fairs).”

For roughly 2,000 years, the Bhats have been the custodians of Kathputli but now, as the autorickshaw driver puts it, “Go to Hawa Mehal or some expensive hotel. They have such arrangements for foreigners.”

In the dimly-lit lanes of Kathputli colony, amongst dilapidated houses, live the stories of several international artistes from Bhat community who have nothing but the glories of their past to hold on to. In his two-storey house, Prakash Bhat, 35, takes out certificates and photographs as he displays his huge collection of puppets.”These are the awards that I received when I went to various places abroad. I have been to 20-25 countries,” Prakash says with pride. Immediately, he takes out his business card and reads it out loud, “Compagnie Anarkali”, he says. Prakash has been a regular visitor to France, catering to a large clientele since 2008. This connection with the country led him to name his company in French. “Every such visit to France, which happens once in a while, would fetch me an amount of at least a lakh,” says Prakash. Despite these visits, building a workshop for puppetry in the third room of his house had been a painful task for Prakash. Not only does his home lack toilet facilities, it does not have a regular water supply either.

Once a spectacle for the street, the performances have now been largely relegated to the plush hotels in Jaipur. However, the artistes believe that there is no dearth of opportunities. Pointing out that third party players have complicated their livelihood, Chottmal, 70, says, “NGOs and the government are hand in glove when it comes to siphoning funds set aside for the performances.”

Desperate Measures Rampal tries his best to keep the money-lenders away by performing on the street Photos: Sunil Yadav
Desperate Measures Rampal tries his best to keep the money-lenders away by performing on the street Photos: Sunil Yadav

In his heyday, Chottmal had even been to Kuwait to perform. Recalling the popularity of the art form then, he says, “I used to earn Rs 1500 per day. Then, people used to look at us with respect. Now, there is no such thing. These kids who do it now have no clue about the time that we were part of.” In spite of being an international artiste, Chottmal must continue to work past his retirement age. “I have to fend for myself because one must eat and drink.” In the same house, Chottmal shares space with his nephew, Sunil Bhat, who is out to perform for a birthday party. Like his uncle, Sunil has visited over 20 countries or more.