Puran Bhatt interviewed by Ranjani Prasad, a student of LSR, DU (2008)

(The interview was taken in hindi. This is the translation of our conversation)

Puran Bhatt: Do you know what a katputhli means ??
Ranjani: A doll, which can be manipulated by a human.
No. The word katputhli comes from ‘kat’ and ‘puthli’. Kat means wood, the material that puppets are usually made for; and puthli means the eyeball. If you notice, the eyeball can never ever stay still. It always moves as long as it’s alive. Puthli signifies life. So, katputhli is a wooden object, call it a doll or a puppet, which moves and appears alive.

I learnt puppetry from my father and my uncle Mohan Lal Bhatt when I was a child. However, I left puppets for a long time in between and pursued other interests like acting, theatre, dancing, and even carving. Then in 1982, I worked with the Shri Ram Centre along with Dadi (Pudumjee) and dabbled with contemporary puppets for some time. In 1990s I did puppets for a show on DD called ‘Ji Sahab’

The form of puppetry that I have inherited from my previous generation was traditional. But observing other forms of puppetry, not only in India but even in other countries broadened my vision. My exposure to contemporary puppetry gave me a larger perspective on puppet theatre and I realized that it’s not just restricted to performing behind a screen created by two mats (charpai). And so, I think my biggest influence has been contemporary puppetry.
For the first time, during the Sangeet Natak Akademi puppet festival Putulyatra 2003, we used an open stage for our play ‘Dhola Maru’. For the first time in traditional Rajasthani theatre, we used actors and allowed the puppeteers to be visible. Usually, the movements of the katputhlis are slow, but here, we made them very fast with dances, etc. Ordinarily, rajasthani puppets would tell a story without visuals as such. But Dhola Maru’s script was made very strong and visuals & text were shown together. This was one of my earliest attempts at expanding the scope of katputhlis and mixing it with elements of contemporary styles.
It’s only when for the first time we brought the puppeteer on to the stage, that we realized the relation between the puppet and puppeteer. We noticed that some of the expressions/emotions that needed to be shown on the puppets were felt by and even visible on the puppeteers face while he was manipulating them. Once the puppeteers started to be seen on screen, the link between the puppet’s character and the puppeteer’s character became apparent. The puppets seemed to be defined by who the puppeteer was. Its like the scope and world of the puppet was exactly as much as the scope and world of the puppeteer’s; and vice-versa. Since then, I’ve stuck to this style, and it has been one of the most important influences on my work.

People nowadays don’t have time. They live a fast life. Media has penetrated so deeply into our lives that you can get all the news and entertainment from around the world just sitting at home with the press of a button. Even though most people in our country are familiar with rajasthani katputhlis, who will come and watch a puppet play? And more so about traditional folk stories? When I started experimenting with my style and was blending it with elements of contemporary puppetry, certain newness was added to the medium, and it was received well by the audience too. I think, today, my art sells more because I have combined the best practices of contemporary puppetry with traditional rajasthani katputhlis.

Q: BUT DID YOU EVER FEEL LIKE YOU DILUTED YOUR CULTURAL PRACTICE OF RAJASTHANI KATPUTHLI KHEL BY MIXING IT WITH WESTERN-INFLUENCED CONTEMPORARY STYLE OF PUPPETRY ??

No. I will never let go of my cultural context, even if I adopt and embrace what is good about other cultures. As for my creativity, the medium that I’m working with i.e. katputhlis and what I’m trying to tell my audience is most important.
I’m a very culturally rooted person. Our whole community moved here in Delhi many years back. I’ve been living in the same slum for the past 50-55 years, with the same lifestyle, despite having achieved a lot of success and fame. My ways are different from today’s fast paced lifestyles. I believe in enjoying everything that I earn instead of saving it for a later day. Delhi government tells us sometimes that they want to build multi-storied apartments for us and demolish the slum. My fear is that the whole community lifestyle that everyone here leads will be disrupted and our culture will somewhat be lost. I find it very frustrating to know that today’s generation knows nothing about our culture and tradition. It is, to an extent, parents’ mistake that they don’t tell their children about it. Your education is westernized; if they don’t tell you, who will? For instance, you girls didn’t even know what a katputhli means. Even if they talk about cultural practices, the north Indian ones don’t include traditions and practices of the south and vice versa. When you live closer to nature and people, you observe around you and learn from them. And it is important that you don’t absorb yourself completely into material things. Infact this is also why most of the puppeteers are in this field for a while and then leave it in search of better jobs that pay more money. Money becomes more supreme than the creative satisfaction one gets out of a profession.

Q: SNEHA RAVI IYER*: HAVE YOU USED YOUR PUPPETS TO COMMUNICATE SUCH IDEAS ABOUT CULTURE AND PRESERVATION OF CULTURE ??

Puppets are a medium where anything can be communicated. I haven’t ever categorically performed anything on how materialism is overtaking the world. When the acts go on, puppetry is appreciated and everything else is forgotten. But I believe and will ensure in my own ways that traditions, values and cultural heritages are never to be forgotten.

I conduct a lot of workshops, especially through SNA, to encourage people to learn traditional arts of puppetry. My idea of a workshop is not just that you learn for a week and are left to pursue it like a hobby. If I work with 15 kids, I want to help them make 1 production each at least. This is so that by the end of it, they’re at least in a position to perform their puppet production at other places and be independent puppeteers. I’m very thankful to SNA for helping me with this.

Another way to encourage puppet arts is that there should be a section for puppetry in every school and college. If other forms like dance, music, etc can have departments in every school, why not puppetry. The students should have more exposure to it.

Q: SNEHA: BUT IF PUPPETRY IS TAUGHT UNDER A SEPARATE SECTION IN SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES, THEN EVERY OTHER ART FORM WILL START ASKING FOR THEIR OWN SECTION. THERE’LL BE NO LIMIT TO THAT ??

I believe puppetry is an art form much superior to others. It mixes all kinds of art forms- dance, drama, music, etc. A puppeteer is an all rounder. Most puppeteers you see in katputhli colony also are multi-talented; they can sing, dance, carve puppets, play the dholak, etc Recently, one girl who trained under me at a workshop got into National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad; and she was thanking me because it was due to her experience in puppetry that she cleared her interview. One understands so many aspects of design by doing puppetry. To me, puppetry is even linked with God. You must’ve often heard of the philosophy that all mortals are puppets in the hand of god and it is god who controls the whole world. As a puppeteer you feel the same way.

Puppets are extremely powerful. I can even abuse you through puppets and not be responsible for it. It has the strength to even change the course of power in society. Sometimes we ourselves don’t realize its power. And as a puppeteer, since I hold this power, the amount of respect and adulation I’ve got is tremendous- not just in India, but world over. I remember one time when I was invited to a dance programme in America where I was sitting with the likes of choreographer Saroj Khan, etc I was to perform a puppet show for a break in the dance performances. It was so well received and was allowed to go on for longer time than stipulated; the audience seemed to have forgotten that they had come for a dance programme. Such audience reaction makes me feel so wonderful and proud, and gives me more energy every time.
Recently I was watching one of these reality shows on singing, and they had classified genres into Sufi, folk and bollywood. I found that really funny. Bollywood music is alive thanks to folk and Sufi music. Folk forms of any art form are the roots. Everything else is born from there.

(*Sneha Ravi Iyer is friend of mine, studying Political Science at Lady Shri Ram College. She accompanied me to katputhli colony the same day).