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Puppetry: Re-establishing the Folk Art

A little tradition and subaltern craft, the wooden puppets or kathputalis were common to Gujarat, Rajasthan and the northern parts of India. After Independence, however, puppetry became a tool for development communication, reaching every nook and corner of rural and poor, urban Gujarat. With the 1990s, and the advent of globalisation, these innovations have found little encouragement and puppeteers have increasingly become workers of an entertainment heritage industry, leading to new forms of neo-brahminical and neo-mercantile exploitation.

FROM THE STATES

Puppetry: Re-establishing the Folk Art

Hiren Gandhi, Saroop Dhruv

these artists were satisfied with a meagre subsistence, once a day dal, roti and pickles. Despite the lack of permanent housing or guaranteed work, their show went on.

This type of puppetry was known as a little tradition and considered a subaltern craft, not even an art form among the brah-

A little tradition and subaltern craft, the wooden puppets or kathputalis were common to Gujarat, Rajasthan and the northern parts of India. After Independence, however, puppetry became a tool for development communication, reaching every nook and corner of rural and poor, urban Gujarat. With the 1990s, and the advent of globalisation, these innovations have found little encouragement and puppeteers have increasingly become workers of an entertainment heritage industry, leading to new forms of neo-brahminical and neo-mercantile exploitation.

Hiren Gandhi (hiren_darshan@yahoo.com) and Saroop Dhruv are cultural activists based in Ahmedabad.

I
n the last three decades, we have witnessed many traditional and folk art forms dying, dead or forgotten. The cyclone of so-called development has swept away traditional knowledge, art forms and important cultural values. In a state like Gujarat, this tension between traditions and hasty modernisation is very obvious. On the one hand, the state enjoys the top status in development, but on the other, ritualism, caste hierarchy, all types of inequality and of course poverty are rampant. Oddly enough, Gujaratis glorify their cultural traditions. Understanding and analysing these contradictions is a big challenge for cultural activists.

The traditional folk art form of puppetry faces a similar crisis. As Mahipat Kavi, the one and only living master puppeteer of Gujarat said in an interaction with one of the authors, “in swarnim Gujarat, traditional puppetry has neither the state’s support nor the relevance as an entertainment for the masses that it was meant and proved to have”.

It is said that the origins of puppetry are as old as human civilisation. Nineteenth and 20th century European scholars suggested that puppetry was the mother of dramatics. The wooden puppets or kathputalis common to Gujarat, Rajasthan and northern parts of India have their roots in the Maru Gurjar tradition from the 13th century. The nomadic community called Kankali Bhaat or Putli-Bhaat has been earning its livelihood from this art form for almost eight centuries. Moving from village to village and state to state, they perform traditional skits, plays, songs with wooden dolls, mostly in the language of the masses of Rajasthan. As migrants, they live sporadically on the outskirts of the towns and cities of Gujarat. Listed under Other Backward Classes, their living conditions were and are pathetic. Supported by the people in the mercantile culture of Gujarat,

july 23, 2011

minical great traditions during the medieval era. But puppetry is nonetheless an art which requires much skill and imagination

– a sleek story line, narrative flair, humour, a musical sense and swift fingers. The puppeteer was really all in one. Except for his wife, who accompanied him in playing the dholak and singing some lines, he ran the show almost single-handedly. Puppetry was a self-contained entertainment in itself. Kavi says that the puppeteer was known as a sutradhara, or one who manipulates the strings; he was like a “master of all arts”.

Then came Independence. A few sensitive actors and nation-builders understood the importance and great educational value of some of these traditional folk art forms. With a bit of modification and a little modernisation, puppetry was used as a very effective tool of mass communication by central and state governments in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The messages of family planning, education, good health, prohibition, and so on were spread through puppets.

Social Responsibility

Though radio, cinema and television proved much more effective and full of variety as entertainments, the task of social responsibility fell to the art of puppetry. To cater to this opening, master puppeteers like Gul, Shanti Bardhan and Meher Contractor started training a younger generation. Internationally famous puppeteers like Mahipat Kavi and Dadee Padamji came out with innovative puppetry as a useful tool for formal and non-formal education in Gujarat. Cultural exchange with the west was common. Art institutes like Darpana and Indian Space Research Organisation-Development and Educational Communication Unit (ISRO-DECU) in Ahmedabad started using a creative fusion of Indian and western traditional and modern puppetry. For at least two decades in the 1970s and 1980s, puppetry explored all the possibilities in the area of developmental communication

vol xlvi no 30

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

FROM THE STATES

and reached almost every nook and corner of rural and poor urban Gujarat.

But during and after the 1990s, these efforts came to an end. Doordarshan became irrelevant with the large numbers of private channels taking over. The definition of entertainment came to be drastically changed. Villages emptied out and poured into the cities. In a state like Gujarat where technological development was at a high pitch, and electronic media and other entertainment alternatives reached the masses easily, folk artists and their art became irrelevant to their audience. Puppetry was caught in the net of global culture.

Now in Gujarat, these Rajasthani mig rants move their strings in five-star village-resorts, posh village-like dhabas or birthday parties for non-resident Indian (NRI) kids. In a flourishing heritage market, puppeteers and their puppetry is becoming a commodity. The string pullers of the globalised market control all folk art forms showcasing the great culture of Gujarat. These event managers are active in the big and small cities of Gujarat and have become agents for these folk artists, buying and selling them in the service of the filthy rich and NRIs and non-resident Gujaratis (NRGs). Puppeteers are now servants or workers of this entertainment

heritage industry. Their standard of living is however no better. As Kavi says,

puppeteers are not beggars; they are artists

and all they want is their rightful living with

dignity. Isn’t that the responsibility of the state?

In this status quo for folk artists, a traditional art has lost its old charm and value as an educational tool and entertainment for the poor. People like Kavi want to re-establish the original role of puppetry and have many new ideas to develop it as educational tool from their experience and learning in the west. Fusing Indian puppetry with western forms such as rod puppets, string puppets, glove puppets, shadow puppets, muppets, mask puppets, for example, Kavi has developed nursery rhyme shows in Gujarati and English as part of an experimental “burdenless” curri culum for pre-primary and primary education. Taking on political themes, he has also created a seven-minute skit on the decline of the textile mills in Ahmedabad using unusual props such as a factory horn and puppet bicycles. Such use of puppetry for health, education and other development communication purposes draws on European experience, and has great relevance in developing countries such as ours. It would also represent a natural evolution of trends in the art form started in the 1970s.

But there are no takers other than the occasional workshop invitation. Heritage mongers may worry that if these innovations are implemented, then puppetry may lose its traditional glamour. If the puppeteers get more education, exposure, new ideas, what happens to their heritage industry? This neo-brahminical or/and neo-mercantile repression looks like the classical exploitation of folk artists.

Not only the government but the elite and the civil society of Gujarat are also responsible for this negligence and invasion. Postmodernist scholars may want to protect these folk arts and culture, but they ignore rapid economic growth and changing economic patterns. On the other hand those who promote economic change are ignorant of our cultural ethos. To understand, to change and to protect the condition of traditional art, reconstructing its structure without losing its soul is a tightrope walk.

Kavi dreams of the day when new generations of these artists will come forth with fusions of tradition and innovation for entertainment and education. How long will it take to realise this dream? Will the glamour of market forces wash away the art and its artists?

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Economic Political Weekly

EPW
july 23, 2011 vol xlvi no 30

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