All set to perform at the 12th Ishara International Puppet Festival in New Delhi, Puran Bhat talks about the magic of puppets and the need to save them.

When I meet Puran Bhat, he’s sitting on his roof, leaning against an old, broken cot. He’s using rusty tools to shape a piece of thermocol into what looks to me glorious antlers. He is busy, but he tells me that I can sit down, that he can talk, though his fingers don’t stop moving, shaping and reshaping and cutting; these are clearly hands that have decades of experience. There’s poverty and hardship around Bhat, but while I talk to him, I almost forget it. Two young men are sharing the roof with us. They are practising for the show Bhat’s puppet group, Aakaar Puppet Theatre, will be performing for the 12th Ishara International Puppet Festival.

“‘Dhola Maru’ is a love triangle, adapted from an old Rajasthani folktale. It’s traditional puppets, but presented in a new, modern way. Usually, puppet shows happen inside a constrained shape, a box. This show, for the first time, will use the entire stage. It’ll be like watching a play.” Bhat adds that “Dhola Maru” has been performed in different forms and adaptations, three other times. “Once with Dadi Pudumjee, and also once in collaboration with a French puppet group, where we mixed this story and ‘The Little Mermaid’ together.” In fact, it was out of his collaboration with Dadi Pudumjee that Aakaar Puppet Theatre was born. Bhat started his puppetry career with Pudumjee at the Delhi Shri Ram Centre, and then, moved on with three other women to the Ranjana Pandey’s Jan Madhyam.

“For a year in the middle though, I left puppetry. I worked as an actor, singer, performer, carpenter. I worked in the construction of two restaurants of the Taj group in Delhi.” But Bhat also adds that the happiness and satisfaction he feels while working with puppets is incomparable. The need to work independently and pursue a path he could carve on his own prompted Bhat to start his own theatre group. “Two out of the three women who had quit Delhi Shri Ram Centre and Jan Madhyam with me, joined me in starting Aakaar. But then, one of them got married and went abroad, and the other got married in Delhi, but they didn’t want her pursuing this career.”

Today, Bhat is the sole founder left, and displays almost superhuman efforts in keeping the group running. He writes the plays, directs them, and works with set construction, costumes, music and dance. “This is such a comprehensive art form. It involves mastery in both backstage and onstage requirements.” Though the only permanent member of Aakaar, Bhat does have help. “With each new show, though, I get new members and artistes who join, and they are very talented. Most of them are from the colony.”

Delhi’s Kathputli colony, identified often as a slum, is actually a hub of artists, artisans, puppeteers, writers, poets, painters, singers and dancers. “There is no dearth of talent here,” says Bhat. He admits that while few youngsters are keen on becoming professional puppeteers, his own sons, as well as other members of his family, are an asset to the group. Bhat has seen worldwide fame, performing both in India and abroad, to an audience that has always loved his work. He sits there, his fingers moving effortlessly between glue and knife and thermocol, and tells me that despite the fame, the support that he should get from the Government never comes.

“Today, we have lasted this long, and will continue to last, because of fellow artistes and their support. They are the ones who sustain us. Not the Government.” The Kathputli colony, home to over 3000 artistes and puppeteers, are faced with a life of hardship, struggle and constant worry. “The Government favours the builders, not us, while we stay here, striving to make a part of this country’s heritage survive.”

Surprisingly, Bhat isn’t bitter or frustrated. Speaking frankly, he only admits that puppetry is a dying art form, like many other art forms in the country. “It’s our fault. The audience, that reveres and looks up to anything that comes from the West, and ignores its own rich, magical heritage.”

And puppets, for Bhat, are no less than magic.

“The ‘Dhola Maru’ show for Ishara is going to do something interesting. Usually, the puppeteer isn’t visible on stage. All you see is the puppet. But this time, we are going to show that relationship, and that’s where the power of a good puppet show will be obvious. Look at me, I’m tall, dark, and big. It should be impossible to ignore me on the stage, but if I infuse enough life and power in the puppet, I’ll be as good as invisible.” And the power of Bhat’s puppet shows is renowned. Once, he tells me, he performed with the venerable playwright, Vijay Tendulkar in the audience. “I wouldn’t really come out to meet the audience. After the shows, I would retreat backstage. After the third show, I was told that Vijay Tendulkar had come every day, waiting in the audience to meet me. I was shocked that he had had to wait. I went outside, and met him, and bent down to touch his feet. He just grasped my hands, and kissed them. Didn’t say a word. I got tears in my eyes.”

Wrapping up the interview, Bhat adds that real support would be in giving puppeteers space and shows, not awards and a lump sum of money. “What we need isn’t money. It is a little acknowledgement, respect and space to call our own, where we can practice, and improve an art form that can bring joy, beauty and honour to the country.”

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