“If we leave this place, who will call us for shows? How will they find us?” asks Alok Kumar (name changed on request), as he sits outside his shanty in the Kathputli Colony slum in Shadipur, New Delhi. Kumar is worried because he, along with other puppeteers, who have been living in the area for almost half-a-century, are about to be relocated to a transit camp in Anand Parbat as part of a Delhi Development Authority (DDA) plan.
Under the plan, which was launched in 2014, the slum dwellers are to be relocated to the transit camp for two years, while residential flats are built for them to move back into in Kathputli Colony. The makeover of the slum, which is home to the largest congregation of street performers in the country, is expected to displace 2,800 families, as per a recent DDA survey.
But the puppeteers, after whom the colony was named, are very sceptical. They say that since a big portion of their revenue depends upon the exclusivity of the place they reside in―Kathputli Colony, which is known as a centre for puppetry―they will lose out on big business. The process of relocation, however, has started, with many having already moved to temporary accommodations in Anand Parbat, which is around 5 km from Kathputli Colony.
The rest are waiting for their housing slips, as per a resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Many of us are still waiting to be registered,” the person said, adding that only about 150 families have moved out in the past six months, while the rest of them are yet to be allotted rooms in the transit camp. Only after all have moved out, will the makeover of the slum begin.
While the puppeteers might be worried about the potential loss of livelihood, their predicament is a tell-tale sign of the state of puppetry in the country, which is a dying art form today with few takers. When asked about their hesitation to relent to the relocation, a resident said that for most artistes, this is the most important time of the year. They prepare all year round for “the peak season” (November-March) during which they perform about 10-15 shows every month (each show varies from the other in terms of storyline, music, concept, etc, for which organisers pay them a pre-determined amount between R500 and R2,000). Interestingly, the money they get per show is much less than what most families spend on a film outing.
Bookings come in as early as August and the shows begin post-monsoon. So the months that follow up to it are crucial in securing deals with organisers of cultural events and festivals, which they fear missing out on because of the relocation. To add to that, accounts from those who have already relocated to the transit camp are ridden with woes of lack of basic amenities like water and electricity. The community also feels that their art might suffer if they are not relocated back to their homes in time.
Their sentiments resonate with their community in Rajasthan, where generations of artistes have upheld the traditional art of puppetry. Currently, kathputli artistes in Jaipur live on disputed land in slums such as Kathputli Nagar and Kalakar Colony, which are not very different from the Shadipur slum in New Delhi.
Kathputli Nagar, with the Sawai Mansingh Stadium as a backdrop, doesn’t look much different from a maze, where tiny lanes wind into the homes of artistes. It’s a close-knit community, where care is taken to introduce the art to the younger generations as well. When asked why he chose to train in puppetry, 14-year-old Akash Bhat says, “If we don’t take it forward, who will?” Youngsters like Akash are being trained in the tricks of the trade by their elders, so that they can represent the fraternity at cultural festivals.
“We used to have a lot of patrons back when my forefathers were alive. Those times were different; today there is no dearth of entertainment options,” says 42-year-old artiste Vinod Bhat, who feels that traditional performing artistes are fading out because of the advent of technology and its invasion into the lives of millennials.
Another interesting sight here is kathputli sellers sitting on roadsides near tourist spots selling puppets. The artistes say putting up their puppets for sale was never a traditional aspect of kathputli-making, but over time, the community had to resort to these means to support themselves. Bablu Bhat from Kalakar Colony says, “We have to do it… we have to eat.”
As per OP Tonk, head, Kathputli Nagar Vikaas Samhiti, a local organisation working for the welfare of puppetry artistes in Kathputli Nagar, the puppeteers could do with some help. He suggests that the state tourism department could benefit from a community theatre built specifically to showcase the folk traditions of Rajasthan. “It would support so many families living here,” he says.
What’s ironical is that the country hosts many events to support the art form, but the spotlight never reaches the majority of artistes. Chief among these is the Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival, which is organised in Delhi. Founded under the tutelage of 65-year-old Dadi Pudumjee, a leading puppeteer in India, Ishara annually collaborates with other institutions of puppetry from around the globe to encourage a renewal of the art form. The festival, in its 15th year now, is one of the few international puppet festivals to see over a hundred international groups perform. It also looks for modern and traditional artistes in India, inviting eight-10 solo and group performers every year. Pudumjee has even instituted an Ishara Scholarship Fund for modern artistes who want to experiment and create new work, as he feels that corporate sponsorships are harmful for artistes, as investors clinch their creativity to focus on revenue rather than the art.
Yet most kathputli artists in the country are unaware of the initiative. People in Shadipur say only one artiste from their community is invited to take part in the Ishara festival.
Globally, too, there are many such events taking place around the world. The mecca for modern puppeteers, Charleville in France, is the site of the biannual world puppet festival and witnesses tremendous footfall from around the world. Countries such as Indonesia, Italy, China and Japan are some of the prominent participants. This year, two puppetry groups from India are set to perform at Charleville in September, along with Ishara’s melodramatic musical puppet show Heer Ke Waris, which is based on the Heer-Ranjha folklore. Pudumjee feels puppetry definitely needs better support from the government, as also corporates and individuals. “We have a tremendous puppet culture in India, but it needs nurturing to survive the market forces,” he adds.
(Written by Ananya Banerjee)