Efforts are being made to integrate traditional skills, such as puppetry and acrobatics, into socially relevant programmes and campaigns.
Ram Lal belongs to the Bhat community of Rajasthan, which was associated closely with traditional puppetry in the state. However, it has become increasingly difficult for younger members of the community to sustain their traditional art form. Lal was lucky to establish contact with a team at the Barefoot College in Ajmer district, which was trying to use puppets to spread messages of its health, education and other development programmes in an imaginative and creative way.
This opened up new possibilities for Lal, very different from the stories of valour of kings he was accustomed to telling earlier. He now started thinking about linking the revival of traditional arts with new social concerns. He has recently received a ‘democracy fellowship’ to explore this work further. He will be visiting various groups of social activists to train them in puppetry, so that this traditional art form can find many new expressions in social mobilisation.
Lal says that while this is a very important task in itself, the even wider task is to establish closer links with the community which preserved puppetry over the generations so that more and more of their yound people can be linked with the revival of their art.
For Lal, it is not enough for a few, more fortunate members of the community to tie up with tourism-based programmes or other such scattered opportunities, the entire community needs to be helped. In a situation of poverty and very few opportunities, they have fallen prey to some internal problems and these also need to be confronted and overcome, he says. Lal hopes to visit various regions where the community is based and identify people who can take up a mobilisational role.
Another somewhat similar community is that of the Nats, who are traditionally very skilled acrobatic performers. With some training, these skills can not only be redesigned for performances which are more acceptable in present times but can also find expression in sports like gymnastics.
Noor Muhammad is another activist and ‘democracy fellow’ who has been involved in helping traditional performers from a community called Kalandars. Noor bhai comes from a neighbourhood of this community in Tonk. Recalling his childhood days, Noor says that most of the households had bears and monkeys who were well trained in giving dance and entertainment performances.
Members of the Kalandar community travelled from one place to another, giving entertaining street performances.
Noor bhai was also a performer, he went around with a dancing bear. When his bear was asked whether he was willing to swear on the name of his close friend, he nodded his head in approval, but when he was asked to swear on his wife he disagreed. When he was asked to act like a drunk, his acting led to roaring laughter among the street audience. Whatever money was given by the crowd on the spot was considered adequate for the performers, their families and the animals.
The animals were treated as family members, since the communities’ livelihood was linked so closely to them. If one of the animals fell ill, there used to be religious offerings for their early recovery just as in the case of family members, Noor adds.
Despite this, the community came under attack for confining animals and their traditional livelihood was banned. Now there is not a single bear left with the Kalandar community at Tonk. What is more, the entire skill set which opened up new aspects of human-animal interaction are likely to be lost.
Following the ban and restrictions, these skills are no longer being imparted from one generation to another. Noor feels that there are still possibilities of revival. The skills of the community can also be used in new contexts, like for wildlife protection or preventing monkeys from becoming a menace, as is happening in some parts. But the present reality is that this community is being neglected, as such small communities are not attractive to politicians.
Ram Niwas is associated with the Barefoot College and has been visiting several villages of folk artists and performer communities with the objective of documenting the skills these artists, particularly musicians. One of the ways in which such documentation can be helpful is by creating a website so that folk artists and musicians can be contacted directly for performances, without involving middlemen. Another wider objective is to collect basic information which can be helpful in identifying and resolving problems of folk artists.
Shankar Singh is a senior activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, who has received widespread appreciation for the highly creative use of puppets in spreading social messages, including about the right to information and the employment guarantee Act. He strongly feels that the dormant talent of various folk artist communities should be tapped socially relevant work, for which wider mobilisation efforts are needed in communities of folk artists and performers.
This is an effort that needs to be taken up at a much wider level than the sporadic attempts being made just now, although even these have opened up a few windows of hope and opportunity.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.