Teachers of rural government primary schools are being trained in the art of puppetry as a medium of instruction

The venue is Centre for Culture Resources and Training (CCRT) in Delhi. The audience comprises teachers of government primary schools from across rural India. And the man on the stage is Rameshwar Bhatt, a well known puppeteer from Rajasthan.

Bhatt has an uncanny knack for weaving stories on the spot and the moment his fingers play with the strings, the magical world of his puppets comes alive to enthral the audience. But here he is playing the role of an educator. He gives tips to the teachers on how this traditional art can be used as a medium and tool for educating children.

First he inroduces his sutradhar (anchor) — a puppet called Anokhe Lal. As Anokhe Lal moves his eyes and lips in sync with the voice from behind the curtains, he is an instant hit with the audience. Bhatt selects the story of the ‘Clever Rabbit and the Lion in the Cage’ and weaves another story on how important clean water is for health through the art of puppetry as a demonstration for the teachers.

Nearly a hundred teachers from ten States attended the 11-day workshop recently on the role of puppetry in education. The deputy director of CCRT, Pratima Gupta, says that the teachers were not only taught about different types of puppets but also how to create them by themselves and use this traditional art as a medium to teach various subjects in primary schools. The centre has been conducting such workshops for the past 30 years and they have been getting good feedback, says Mrs Gupta.

The teachers at the workshop feel that with a lot of emphasis now being laid on activity-based learning, this art form can be used extensively as an effective tool because puppets can really captivate the imagination of the child. Some of the teachers from Chhattisgarh say they had never seen a puppet in their life but this training has ignited their imagination. The teachers are already planning on how to use puppets created by them to teach math and other subjects, moral education and even entertain the children.

Bhatt, who has been working with CCRT for 28 years now, says: “The most important thing is to sustain the interest of the children.” Born in a family of puppeteers for generations in Rajasthan’s Sikar district, Bhatt himself creates wooden puppets (Rajasthan’s special), shadow puppets made mostly of leather from Andhra Pradesh, puppets made of paper mache from West Bengal and glove puppets.

Bhatt says that puppetry is not just about movements and anybody using this art form should have the gift of the gab and ability to connect with the people (in this case students) and only then can the lifeless puppets be turned into live wire entertainers .

At one time, heroic tales of Rana Pratap and Amar Singh Rathore and entertainment in the form of folk music and dance were the mainstay of the art of puppetry in Rajasthan or epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and other folk lore in some other parts of the country; but today, this traditional art is being used by the government, NGOs and educational institutions for propagating welfare schemes, educating people on health, family planning, cleanliness, bringing social issues to the fore and making people aware of their rights.

Some of the nationalised banks have also been using puppet shows to encourage villagers to deposit their money in banks or educate them about credit schemes. Even the ad-world is using this traditional art to market goods.

While puppetry may no longer be as popular in villages as a form of entertainment as it used to be in the past due to the onslaught of television and films, institutes like the CCRT is keeping the traditional heritage alive by promoting diverse uses of puppetry.