I had heard about a group of nomadic puppeteers who had settled in Jaipur, and was lucky enough to be introduced to Rajesh Bhat, a Rajasthani puppeteer living in the heart of the community. He invited me to his home on the outskirts of the city. He lives in a Kathputli-colony. This is a slum where about 250 families make and perform with traditional Rajasthani puppets.
Kathputli (literally wooden-eyes) is the name given to Rajasthani puppetry (although, I was told by an expert in Delhi that it could mean any type of puppetry). Kathputlis use marionettes, music and song to tell folk stories and family histories. Traditionally they were patronized by kings and noble families, but now they mostly perform in hotels and parties, sell puppets as souvenirs, and participate in specialist festivals.
Visiting the colony was a quite an intense experience. It is worlds apart from the puppetry “studios” I have visited in the UK. People make puppets in tiny walled spaces, along narrow streets, in small dimly lit rooms, among the fires, flies, litter. It felt a tad claustrophobic, especially after we got further into the slums, and I realized I had no idea how to get out of this myriad of concrete.
Just before we got to Rajesh’s home a man squeezed past speaking into a loud tannoy. He was talking in Hindi, and my wild-romantic-imagination assumed he was calling for a critical-mass to march for liberation, or spieling religious rhetoric, or waxing lyrical about new and old political systems. I found out he was the zip-guy, and he was asking people to get their broken-fly-trousers out if they wanted them fixed.
It was fascinating to see where the puppets are made. They are sold all over India as tourist souvenirs, except the really good ones, which are exclusively used by the Kathpulis themselves.