The house of puppets

“The show must go on” — the oft-heard phrase fits into the life of Vasanti Devi perfectly. Vasanti and her group of six artists successfully hide a personal story of loss and pain behind upbeat demeanour, colourful attire and delightful puppets. It was difficult to find any traces of tragedy as the troupe performed the famous saga of Amar Singh Rathore in the Kathputli tradition of Rajasthan, at the 10th edition of Dhaatu International Puppetry Festival.

In October 2017, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) demolished Kathputli Colony, a slum cluster in Shaadipur Depot. It used to be home to more than 2,000 families of street performers and artistes before their homes were razed by bulldozers.

Bolt from the blue

“Of course, the issue has been going on for long but we had no inkling that it was going to happen that day. It was around 10 am. The residents were going about their business as usual and suddenly our houses disappeared. People lost their belongings. Their expensive items were damaged. People got hurt. They had no time to collect their stuff,” recalls Vasanti, the elderly artiste who continued with the kathputli tradition in her family after her husband, a well-known puppeteer Babulal Bhatt, passed away in 2010.

According to DDA, Kathputli Colony has illegally encroached upon its 5.2 hectare land for last five decades. In accordance with the Master Plan of Delhi 2021, which calls for in-situ redevelopment of slum areas, a PPP was signed with a major builder in 2009. Over the years, several families were shifted to transit camps in Anand Parbat and Narela. Eligible families are entitled to a flat under the EWS scheme.

What does it take to practise art amidst such mayhem? “Nothing but the determination to keep the art form of our ancestors alive.” Her two sons — Vijay and Pawan Bhat — are adept in the art of Kathputli. And pointing at her five-year old grandson, she says, he too will take it up. “He is starting to move his fingers nimbly, already.”

The house of puppets

Vasanti belongs to the Bhat community of Rajasthan which is believed to have been engaged with Kathputli for thousands of years. Kath means wood and putli means puppet in Hindi. Fashioned out of wood and cloth, the hand-crafted colourful dolls dangling from a string dance to the tunes of popular folk tales and ballads of the region. And Amar Singh Rathore is one such tale. According to the legend, he belonged to the royal family of Marwar but was disinherited after which he joined the court of Shah Jahan. His bravery is praised and celebrated through music, dance and puppetry till date.

Because of the scope the story offers, it finds favour with several puppeteers. “Yes, and many puppeteers perform it but not everyone can do it well. It is difficult. Today, a lot of people know how to do kathputli but can they work with a 12-stringed puppet? A story like this needs puppets with 11-12 strings and it is not easy. It requires perfection and skill,” states Vasanti, who has been doing Amar Singh Rathore for years.

Her elder son Vijay chips in, “We don’t have the money to put together another production. We need finances to improve the quality of the production.”

The house of puppets

The senior artiste complains that having devoted their lives to the craft, the fraternity didn’t deserve such treatment. “We were already living in abysmal conditions. Overflowing drains, garbage everywhere but we had made it home. Anand Parbat, where we have been shifted to, is worse than that. We are living in camps. It is unhygienic, of course. There are insects moving all over, plus the atrocities of the police. Every day, police comes and beats up people,” stresses the elderly lady. Pointing at her nephew Jeetu Bhat, also part of the group, she added, “He was in Bangalore for a performance when his house was demolished. So, where does he go back to? He has stayed on here. His brother-in-law committed suicide a few days ago. He was depressed after losing his house. He had taken to drinking. A lot of people have killed themselves after the demolition.”

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 11:42:01 PM |

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