Puppetry has seen a downward gradient from being an art which lit up Indian streets and courtrooms, to being pushed to hopeless anonymity reduced by the contemporary forms of entertainment.
Project Kayakalp is an initiative to breathe life into the dying art form. It is an endeavour of the Rotaract Club of SRCC Panchshila Park and its parent club, RC Delhi Panchshila Park, District 3010 to empower traditional puppeteers and other artists of Kathputli colony in Delhi and expand their income opportunities; while also using the medium of puppetry to convey social and environmental messages and making their art relevant to contemporary audiences.
The Colony is home to a host of talented artists like puppeteers, sword-swallowers and folk dancers who have been pushed to the verge of extinction due to lack of audience. Professional problems like seasonal nature of work, lack of education, lack of basic organisational structure, restricted market exposure and internal wage cutting have forced them to live in deplorable conditions.
The puppeteers showcase programmes on road safety, environmental issues, health, hygiene and nutrition for student audiences across various schools, and other themes for general audience across the capital. They use an interesting blend of puppet masks, muppets and props to make the show thoroughly attractive and entertaining for the children. Puppets dressed as cartoon characters such as Chhota Bheem and Chutki effectively drive home the educative messages.
The Amar Singh Rathore Show took the children of the club-adopted government schools through the Rajasthani legend and his controversy with Salawat, Shah Jahan’s trustworthy courtier. Glimpses of the king’s court and celebrations added to the opulence. The puppets used are bigger in size compared to the usual Rajasthani puppets so as to be visible to the entire audience.
The puppeteers are taught script- building skills with professional assistance, and varied forms of puppetry to broaden their horizons. Their puppet making workshops teach children and interested learners to make various kinds of puppets, including the Japanese traditional Bunraku puppet.
The project reaches out to help the puppeteers establish sustainable contracts with event management companies, fair organisers and cultural institutions for theme-based shows. More than 80 shows across Delhi have been staged and four workshops conducted; stalls put up at various events have helped promotion of their merchandise.
The income of the puppeteers has risen to over three times. Their income during the lean period has also increased substantially.
The revival of the traditional art form of puppetry is a step towards preserving the cultural heritage of India. The messages spread by the puppet shows among children sensitise them to pertinent social and environmental issues.
It is proposed to organise the artists into a puppet theatre group with a rotating ruling committee which will cater to their need for a self sufficient professional body. It will provide them an identity/brand-name whilst securing long-term patronage. Moreover, the formation of an organisation would combat the issue of competition within the community which may lead to downward wage-spiral.
(The author is member of Rotaract Club of SRCC Panchshila Park, District 3010)