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William Dalrymple, in his fine book “Nine Lives” writes about the Phad singers of Rajasthan. As in traditional arts and crafts everywhere, the few remaining Phad singers and puppeteers are struggling to find audiences and sustain their livelihoods. There is a great danger that these rich traditions will soon be lost. Performances for tourist groups can help these artists survive, but to be really appreciated, the audiences need to be educated about the background to these stories (which are well-known to most traditional rural audiences) and this happens only with the most knowledgeable tourists, such as academics or researchers studying language and culture.
The Phad is a religious scroll painting of deities, a kind of a portable temple. As representations of the divine, these Phads, or painted scrolls, are treated with great reverence by the Bhopas (traditional singers) who carry them from village to village and fair to fair. The bhopas are bards, singers of epics, and perform prodigious feats of memory. The most popular epic is that of Pabuji. In the old days, when this 4000 line courtly poem was recited from beginning to end, something that rarely happens today, it took a full five nights of eight-hour performances to complete the narration. The art of the bhopa was handed down in families, from father to son. Sadly, the bards with their traditional accompanying musical instruments, called Ravannahatta, are disappearing from both town and country today.
Another dying art tradition is that of puppetry performances. Scholars believe that the tradition is thousands of years old. The puppets are called “kathputli” and fashioned from fabric, wood, wire and threads. In a desperate attempt to attract foreign tourists, puppeteers have “dumbed down” their elaborate plays based on the classic Indian epics, and developed contemporary five-minute local variations that neither do justice to the original, nor do they attract the tourists as they are meant to do. As Janis Joplin presciently sang in the 1960s, the sentiment behind Lord, can I have a Mercedes-Benz and the pursuit of material wealth has eclipsed the spiritual quest even in this land of 33 million gods.* There are several standard figures in the line-up of modern Rajasthani puppets. One of them is called Anarkali, who is modelled as a temptress and courtesan.
The second standard modern puppet figure is a Rajasthani version of Michael Jackson, who struts his stuff on the portable wooden stage and manages a passable moonwalk. The highlight of this 2-minute skit is when he raises his detachable head.
The third modern set piece is a snake charmer and his cobra, which begins to chase him around the stage after initially swaying to the charm of the flute in the background. Another character who often appears is a demure bride who suddenly is flipped over and becomes a male singer. Sometimes these puppets are handled with considerable skill, all the while accompanied by an ektara, a single stringed violin, and a shrill-voiced male singer who speaks through a bamboo reed.
*The figure of 33 million was pulled out of a hat after many discussions of the number of gods, where the count ranged from 3000 to 330 million, the last figure based on the reasoning that almost every third person in the country has his or her own personal deity. This seemed rather far fetched, but it is true that in every small village and town there are local version of the principal gods and lesser deities of the Hindu pantheon. If it all seems too foreign and confusing, look at it this way. There is but one god, Brahma, the creator of all things, and all the numerous deities are but one way of approaching him, just as Catholics pray to their favourite saint to intercede for them before the one God.