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Indian puppeteers finding hard to pull strings

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Santosh Bhatt uses puppets to teach his children to tell stories about everything from medieval kings to AIDS, but in the digital age it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from the centuries-old Indian craft.

Bhatt, originally from the western desert state of Rajasthan, hails from a nomadic tradition of folk artistry, but like many of its practitioners he now lives in a slum in a frenetic city where he is trying to adapt and keep the art alive.

"In Rajasthan, because there were kings and queens, we used to perform for them but that time is finished," said Bhatt, recalling the grand shows put on by his father and grandfather. Elaborate scripts, music and dozens of puppets would be prepared for stories about court life, Bhatt recalled.

But when royalty was abolished in India the puppeteers lost their patronage and they began to settle in cities, where they performed at street festivals, birthday parties and in government health campaigns.

"Now people just want a little comedy and dancing, that's all," said 37-year-old Bhatt, who charges 2,000 rupees (44 dollars) for a one-hour show that he generally puts on with three other performers. "Television started coming so no one asks for puppets."

Even government-sponsored work is sporadic, as public agencies in the past decade have increasingly turned to television to advertise messages about AIDS and polio, he said. --


Puppet colony in the capital --Bhatt, who lives in Kathputli (Puppet) Colony in the Indian capital, estimates that most of the 650 families who live there have turned to simpler arts, like singing and playing wedding drums called dhol. "We are known for puppetry, not singing, not dancing," said Bhatt. "Now you ask people how many are doing puppetry only -- maybe 25 to 30 percent. The dhol work is not really ours. But there is more money in dhol." Even so, Bhatt is teaching three of his four children how to carve the string-operated puppets by hand, sew costumes and make them dance.

To make ends meet, Bhatt and other puppeteers are trying to spruce up their performances, improve their puppets and perform abroad for Western audiences, whose appreciation of the art is "phenomenal," one arts promoter said. "They are received very well and are really appreciated.


They just came back from a trip to Holland and they really performed at very good theatres," said painter Sterre Sharma, co-founder of the Kalakar Trust. The trust runs a school in the slum providing the puppeteers' children with a regular education, as well as training in the crafts and organising performances abroad.


"I was very happy to see that very large theatres -- thousand-seater -- had at least 800 seats occupied," said Sharma, a Dutch woman who has lived in the country since her marriage to an Indian in her early 20s. Artists in the neighbourhood say the trips abroad are life savers, providing income in the lean summer months when no marriages take place and even drummers and wedding bands are out of work. -- For puppeteers, performance and respect inextricably linked.

But as important as the money is the recognition of their skill and artistry, one young puppeteer said, something that is lacking in a modernising India transfixed by Bollywood movies and television.

"When I have been abroad I can perform in the street," said 18-year-old Kailash Bhatt, who spent six months in France, where a Russian artist insisted on buying one of his handmade puppets for 2,000 euros ($2,617 ). "I don't feel like I can perform on the street here because people think we are a bad lot, picking pockets," said the young Bhatt (no relation to the older puppeteer, although both share a family name common among puppeteers). "For the artist, respect is everything. He can't perform from the heart if he is not respected."

A visiting artist who was working at the Kalakar school said that as the artists modernise and adapt to performing on stage rather than in the street, they are likely to get more formal theatre work.

"They have a real sense of rhythm, of telling a story," said Canadian Kathy France, a Bangkok-based actress and director who teaches performance skills and came to Kalakar to help the puppeteers prepare for an overseas trip later this year.

"But they're street artists, there's no sense of the audience, lights, photo opportunities," she said. Some theatre performances are already making greater use of folk artists. Englishman Tim Supple, for instance, used traditional acrobats and musicians in his staging in New Delhi last year of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was sponsored by the British Council.

But as the artists pointed out, it is still often foreigners rather than local audiences who are supporting them these days. "Here sometimes we get invited by Indians with a lot of respect," said the older Bhatt. "But after the performance we find ourselves being shown out the back door."

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