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Adventures in puppetry

Jaipur in Rajasthan

My last few weeks at Snehalaya have been strangely dominated by puppets. It all began with the arrival, at the beginning of December, of a new volunteer called Laura Casimir. Laura exuded confidence and creativity: she quickly put forward the idea of a puppet theatre, created and performed by the children, to feature in the upcoming Snehalaya Christmas party. Sanjib recommended two classic hindu tales to perform: ‘the elephant with no friends’ and ‘monkey caps,’ and Laura and I set about drawing the characters and scenery. Next came the fun part: painting the monkeys, elephant, lion and assortment of other jungle characters involved in the stories. We divided the children into two groups and let them go to work with brushes and paints; soon all the characters had come to life (albeit in unusual colours and incredibly thick layers of paint!) We then constructed a theatre set from scrap pieces of wood and decorated it with foliage and flowers to create an authentic jungle background for the performances. Finally, we allocated parts to the children for each tale and held rehearsals in the classroom. When the big day arrived the children were superb: Dipika and Satyam read their scripts perfectly; Jagdeesh and Teekam stole the show as the elephant and lion; and all the children performed with great energy and enthusiasm. I even made a comic cameo appearance as the cap merchant in ‘monkey caps,’ and had the crowd on its knees in raucous laughter. The plays were a great success and, most importantly of all, there had been a contribution, however small, from all the children at Snehalaya.

Following the Christmas program, exhausted and in need of a rest, we left for a short break to Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan. A beautiful city in the desert - hot and dusty, yet clean and elegant - Jaipur was a delightful place to unwind. Known as the ‘pink city,’ due to the colour of its stone, it is famous for its exquisite clothing, marble sculptures and to our obvious delight, Rajasthani puppets. Whilst visiting the city palace, we came across a puppet theatre with a performance in full flow, accompanied by traditional Rajasthani music. As we enjoyed the show, Laura was already forming an idea in her head: wouldn’t it be fun to perform a show, with real puppets, for the children back at Snehalaya. Never one to procrastinate, she soon purchased two puppets and arranged with the puppeteer, Ravi, to visit him at his home and learn how to make them come alive. I readily agreed to accompany her and the date was set for the following evening.

Ravi’s home is in the delightfully named ‘puppet colony,’ a few miles from the centre of Jaipur. It is exactually that: a community of artists, craftsmen and their families, whose lives play out around the making, painting and performing of puppets. Ravi met us by the road outside and led us through the winding back streets to his home. As we walked, we were greeted by hordes of excited young children asking us our names and telling us theirs; I immediately felt at ease to be around people who were genuinely pleased to see a westerner, and not merely making a play for my money. One beautiful young girl ran up and grabbed my hand, asked my name and then told me, with a beaming smile, that her name was ‘Happy.’ She then ran off to play with her friends, leaving me smiling and feeling moved by the simplicity and warmth of the encounter.

We entered Ravi’s home through the kitchen and were greeted by his wife and three adorable children. Indian families often live together, and Ravi shared with his three brothers, their wives and children, as well as his parents and uncles. It seemed very crowded to someone used to living in relatively spacious western houses; however, India demands that people live in close proximity, and everyone has a role to play in the jigsaw of domestic life. Ravi told us that his three brothers were all puppeteers, and they often travelled and performed in shows together. Moreover, they were from a family of puppeteers going back many years: skills passed down from his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, and now being taught to his children to preserve the craft for the future generations. They make the puppets, write the stories, compose the music and perform for enchanted groups of children and adults. Ravi showed us a selection of different characters, all beautifully crafted from mango wood and adorned with exquisite patterns and designs. There were beautiful princesses, snake charmers and musicians; all dressed in the traditional garments of Rajasthani life. He began to perform for us, accompanied by his brother on the drum, and his children who danced around our feet. Laura and I clapped along, enchanted by this unusual and immensely enjoyable experience.

Performance over, we settled down, with some chai, to listen to our host and his stories of life as a Rajasthani puppeteer. He has travelled extensively with his troupe, performing for audiences in France, Germany and Spain, and even as far afield as South America. He showed us pictures taken with nobility, politicians and Bollywood filmstars; however, what most impressed us was how he used puppets to try to improve life for India’s rural poor. Ravi writes and performs, with his puppets, typical scenes from village life that try to teach important educational and moral messages. He has written pieces about the rapid spread of HIV in India, and the importance of using contraceptives to check its advance. He has written about the dangers of primitive abortion methods; in particular, for families repeatedly aborting unwanted female fetuses in their desperate quest for a son. He has written about the importance of drinking clean water to prevent diseases such as cholera and typhoid that continue to take thousands of lives in India every year. Ravi’s performances also try to make people aware that there is help available should things take a turn for the worse. For example the problems faced by rural farmers when the monsoon fails: every time the rains don’t come, which is not infrequent, scores of desperate farmers are led to commit suicide. They have no food to feed their families, can generate no income, and have no seed with which to start again. Consequently, they feel their predicament is entirely hopeless so see no option but to take their own lives. If only they knew that there is help available, for just such an eventuality, in the form of Government- backed interest free loans and grants that can see them through the hard times and help provide for a brighter future. Ravi, through his puppet shows, brings this into awareness, in the hope that next time farmers will know where to turn for help, and thus prevent this tragic and pointless loss of life.

What I found most interesting was comparing Ravi’s puppet shows with what we do for the villagers that surround the orphanage in Gwalior. At Snehalaya, there is a similar scheme called ‘rural visits,’ where we go to villages to raise awareness of common illnesses and their prevention. Unfortunately, the visits only attract a handful of people as most are not interested to hear: they don’t like change, and prefer to stick to their traditional, mystical way of life going back to ancient times. Consequently, the message does not reach a wide enough audience to really have a positive impact. Ravi told us that, as word gets around that a puppet troupe has arrived, dozens of children come running, followed by their parents, to witness the playful performances and listen to the stories containing the crucial messages. Both Laura and I felt that puppets were a brilliant medium for highlighting these problems and, at the same time, providing enjoyable entertainment for the villagers.

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Posted by tcbcrews 23:25

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Hi Tom, lovely to see your photos and read your recollections - it brought our trip and the children's performance back to life, thank you! I'll email soon. Bfn, Laura

by lauracasim

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