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Dancers on a string

Bored of visiting the same hangouts each weekend? Take a trip to the Kathputli Colony near Shadipur metro station and you won’t be disappointed. It’s an engaging art form that involves puppets, their costumes, songs of narration and accompanying instruments. Sumegha Gulati explores...

india Updated: Sep 11, 2009 21:42 IST
Sumegha Gulati

The red mirror-work awning shimmered as light from the earthen lamps flickered off it. The twang of the ektara marked the twilight. Then the strings moved and the ‘actors’ twitched to life. Amar Singh Rathore fought valiantly and chopped off the heads of the invaders who had made life miserable for the people of Merta. Then the ‘actors’ fell in a heap on the ground. Claps rang out and the puppeteer beamed at the audience.

Bored of visiting the same hangouts each weekend? Take a trip to the Kathputli Colony near Shadipur metro station and you won’t be disappointed. It’s an engaging art form that involves puppets, their costumes, songs of narration and accompanying instruments.

Kathputli natak, or wooden-puppet play, is a decades-old art performed traditionally by gypsy clans from the Nagore district of Rajasthan. Apart from entertaining Rajputana’s royals, they made money by advertising local brands. The shows would tell the tales of the devotion of Meerabai, the valour of Rani Padmini of Chittor, all through folk tunes sung to drumbeats.

Now the art has moved with the times. Most puppeteers have opted for modern puppets and fresh themes, though Amar Singh Rathore keeps popping up every now and then. Mahesh, 28, an artist living in the Kathputli Colony, says, “We have themes prepared on most social issues as our work is used mainly by NGOs. The preparation of puppets and stories for private parties takes at least four days. We also do puppet-operating workshops and classes when invited.” The themes range from AIDS to female foeticide.

Here, entire families are committed to the art and most of the young ones are fourth or fifth-generation artists who have learnt the skill from ancestors.

“Our forefathers who came to Delhi would hardly make Rs 70 a show in those days. Today, we charge Rs 2,000-2500 per show. We’ve got global attention, too. The first group from our colony went to London in 1982, headed by my father,” says Sameer, 25, whose father migrated to Delhi 43 years ago. But this upward social movement is yet to pull the puppeteers out of poverty. Sameer’s family of five stays in a room that’s just 10 feet by 10 feet. Maybe we can help the artists by visiting their shows.