India Interior

The lost art of Kathputli

Mohini Chandola | Updated on April 05, 2019 Published on April 05, 2019

Binod Bhaat and Jyoti Anil Bhaat keep alive the art

They make puppets to entertain people but struggle to make ends meet

A snug settlement behind the Amroodo ka Bagh fairground, Kathputli Nagar in Jaipur, may easily be missed unless keen eyes notice the thin, meandering lane that opens up to a community who carry the heavy weight of a near-dying art on their shoulders.

Most of the residents belong to the Bhaat caste — Dalits who specialise in the performing arts. The Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe people migrate from villages in search of employment but can barely afford to live in the city. Through the decades, they settled in ‘Kathputli’ Nagar, meaning ‘puppets’. Their only source of income is through making puppets, and selling them at various places in the city.

“These are our society’s kids, it’s our responsibility to teach our society,” says Binod Bhaat, 33, fondly called Babu by children in Kathputli Nagar. Binod has no children of his own but takes immense pride in teaching kathputli-making to the community children. He adds, “Who knows the children might actually want to pursue making puppets for a living. At least our future generations will uphold our tradition and take it forward.”

Like all Bhaats, Binod’s parents were also puppet-makers who used to earn a decent living by performing in schools, colleges and exhibitions. Although he didn’t marry and settle down like his parents wished, he quickly learned puppet-making from his parents and has made it his sole purpose to not let the art die.

Impact of digital age

Binod limps towards a mooda (a short stool made of bamboo straws) and accepts tea from his mother. Taking a sip, he continues, “This is the digital age. No one cares about kathputlis anymore. Nowadays, children have their phones, YouTube and iPads. Earlier, we used to perform in schools and kids were hooked to the performances. But for the past decade, the invitations are fewer and fewer.”

Struggling to make ends meet, many have started to sell kathputlis on roadsides or have found jobs in other fields. The rapid decline of a performing art pushes the community to poverty. Some persist, waiting for a festival or a wedding, some have given up altogether.

Dilip Bhaat finds that he can support his family better as a vegetable vendor. “I left puppet-making, I have a family to feed.” Sheila Devi (name changed) says, “I’ve been living at Kathputli Nagar since I got married. I help my husband in selling vegetables. Potatoes are ₹20 per kg and cauliflower is ₹30 per kg.”

Creativity, with no wastage

Recalling better times, Binod limps his way (a painful accident he doesn’t speak of) to a workshop where he demonstrates how to make a kathputli from scratch . “They must be sold in pairs — a man and a woman. We never sell them individually because it’s bad luck,” he says as he settles down on a chatayi (a bamboo-straw mat) and sharpens a small axe. “A man is nothing without a woman, even if they’re dolls” he laughs.

Right from chopping wood to making clothes from discarded fabrics, a Bhaat family makes use of available goods, ensuring no wastage. All dolls cut exactly to the same size, the bark is peeled and intricately chiselled with a sharp axe to shape the eyes and mouth; longer and broader for a male, and slimmer, shorter, for a female. After the dolls are chiselled and sanded, they are given to the women for finishing touches.

For most women in the slum, job opportunities are slim. They assist their husbands in selling puppets or vegetables but most of the time they are occupied in taking care of the household and children. Bound by a patriarchal society, the women cover their faces at all times and speak only when spoken to.

Jyoti Anil Bhaat says that her eldest daughter, 13, dropped out of school to assist her parents to continue the family tradition. She loves to paint, but loves only painting kathputlis. “She doesn’t like doing anything else,” says Jyoti in Marwadi. The shy, teenage artist walks off with her dolls and paint brushes to continue painting in peace, away from foreign eyes.

Her mother, content to have an audience and sensing a potential client, says “We don’t use acrylic colours, only oil paints. They take longer to dry but they don’t wear off for a long time. You can wash the puppets or use wet cloth, and the kathputlis will still look like new.”

Jyoti and Shanti Bhaat, 45, might not be related but they share the same surname which is enough to create a familial bond. Holding the edge of her pallu close to her face, she says, “The women of this community work together. I make the dresses and the pungi (a wind instrument, often showed in the hands of the male kathputli) while Jyoti paints the faces.”

Taking scraps of old saris and cholis, she sews and wraps all the pungis by hand, making up to 30 in one day. “There is nothing else for us, this is all we know how to do,” pipes in Jyoti, who enters with a tray of biscuits. Each pair of kathputli is priced in the range of ₹200-250.

Published on April 05, 2019
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