Hard Times: The Waning Luck of Rajasthan's Folk Artists

03 July 2016
Solarisgirl / CC BY-SA 2.0

Deepak Sapera is a 12-year-old boy; his family has fallen on hard times. They live in Pani Pech, a slum of folk artists in north Jaipur. There, in one street beside a dump yard, he sat with his mother under the shade of a hitched-up cot. Nothing else was left to sit on , or eat, inside the one-room house. Devoid of ventilation, it fumed in the summer heat. A plaque hung on one wall.

I directed my questions to his mother, but Deepak answered. He spoke in an even-toned matter-of-fact voice, the composure of which far outweighed his lean, wiry figure. Father, a renowned kalbeliya dance performer, died last year of an undiagnosed respiratory disease. He never went to a hospital—there was no money. “He was good,” Deepak said. Mother has been diagnosed with cancer. There is nothing to be done about this either. She does not get the widow pension from the state, and she cannot figure out why. Elder sister is divorced, and living with them; she cannot find any work.

What is he going to do, I asked. He fell silent. I enquired further about his father. There was a picture from towards the end; in it, a kurta-clad white man sat on his haunches next to the wilted, unsmiling figure of Deepak’s father. They sat at the same spot in the street as we sat now. He was awarded the Lok Kala Ratna Samman, presented by the famed kalbeliya dancer Gulabo Sapera—that was the golden plaque.

I noticed an abscess around Deepak’s neck. “What happened there?”

“Blood cancer.”

Earlier this year, the state of Rajasthan launched a tourism campaign for the first time in 25 years. Five one-minute, colour-enhanced films and a 50-second stop-motion video were created by the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather to tempt tourists into the sandy state.  To monitor the campaign, the state government constituted a steering committee with members from the chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s advisory council. The government has reportedly set aside Rs 100 crore for this campaign.

The campaign aims to look at Rajasthan with fresh eyes. So gone are the camels, the turbans, the kalbeliyas. Through the eyes of the films’ five protagonists—who lend their names to the titles—we find a state with turquoise-coloured water bodies, skies full of hot-air balloons, haunted havelis, forts and, of course, a man with a twirled moustache driving a two-wheeler jugaad that carries six passengers. Janesthan. Meerasthan. Binoysthan. Huansthan. Aryasthan. The shots are unreally alluring. A snazzy soundtrack introduces the jingle, which is, minus the thumps of studio electronica, even congruous. The tagline: “jaane kya dikh jaye.You never know what you might see.

Though you could not guess so sitting in their ramshackle houses, the inhabitants of Kathputli Colony in Jaipur have travelled the world. The residents are a mix of artisans that form a grainy snapshot of the state: folk singers, kalbeliya dancers, bhapang players, banjara dancers and puppeteers. On sponsored invitations, they perform at far-flung points on the globe, from France to Japan to Dubai to America, but back here, at home, they are a forgotten bunch.

I asked why. Television, the answer came quickly. But it is not that simple. For instance, these artists, unlike those from many other states, have been devalued at the state’s cultural centres as well. A puppeteer finishing a wooden figurine outside his tent—his house—in the colony said that on a cultural evening in Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra, a classical singer or dancer will earn tens of thousands of rupees for a performance, while a puppeteer or another folk artist will earn few hundreds. “I was not even paid, our prize is the tips that we can collect,” he said. “Nobody throws any higher than 50-rupee notes.”

The state itself, it seems, cares little for its heritage. “Sometimes we are invited to put up a show at Amer fort,” Shravan Bhat, a puppeteer, told me. “The government keeps a roll; if you are on the roll, you get called twice or thrice a year. But we do not get paid for that. If one of the foreigners—always a foreigner—gives some money, that is all. What is worse? We cannot even sell our puppets at the fort, because that contract has been given by the government to people who buy puppets wholesale from us, and then sell them at tourist-shop prices.”

Then there is the public disinterest. When I met her on 21 June, Gogali Devi, another puppeteer, had just returned from Delhi after a putting up a week-long stall in Pragati Maidan, the city’s largest exhibition venue. She was invited by the Ministry of Culture, she said, for the first time in two years. It was a sponsored trip, and she could even sell her puppets unlike in Amer. “But so very few people came there. I did not sell a single puppet,” she said. “People not go to Pragati Maidan anymore.”

None of this is news. It has been so for decades now. Ancestrally, folk artists in the state belong to nomadic communities—Banjara, Jogi, Gadiya Luhar, Kalbeliya, Nat, Kanjar and Bhat among others. Only over the last few decades have they begun to settle down on the peripheries of towns such as Jodhpur, Barmer, Alwar, Bikaner and Jaipur. But they belong nowhere, own nothing, have nothing to sell, and are stuck on the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy.

There are places where they are living peacefully, but are not sure for how long. Not having ownership of the land where they have lived for years is a constant concern. As towns swell, their settlements will be forced further and further away. In the Doongtri village near Bhilwara district, in late 2014, an entire settlement was burned down by what Chandu Banjara, who used to live there, described as “a mob of hundreds of people.”

Subtler instances of marginalisation and neglect are visible elsewhere. Muslim Jogis who play bhapang have been living in Mungaska, a village near Alwar district, for over 30 years. There, other lower-caste communities deny them entry to the burial ground. Umar Farooq, a bhapang player belonging to the region, told me that they generally bury their dead either around the house—the tent—or at the bank of a stream.

Most of the people I spoke to in Jaipur had began to settle in the city in the 1980s. The flood of 1981, when the city saw 32.6 centimetre of rainfall in a single day, is the oldest mark on their chronological map. Some had settled that very year; they point out the buildings whose rooftops they ran to. Others came in the years that followed.

The Katputhli colony is located on a patch of land whose ownership is currently under dispute. Both the royal family and the state are fighting the matter in the high court—the reason, the residents believe, that they have not yet been evicted. (In contrast, the the residents of Pani Pech has been moved around twice by the Jaipur Development Authority, or JDA.) The colony itself is a slum. The unpaved lanes are muddy; houses are covered in grime; unclothed children flitter about. It was an eyesore in middle of the town and so, the JDA raised a wall to block the view. Later, as the residents started hanging puppets over it, many claim the wall was raised higher. Now when you come from either the parliament or the Statue Circle, turn at Ambedkar Circle and slide by the Bhawani Singh Road, this wall successfully saves the view from these smeared surroundings. The fate of the state’s folk artists is not something you could accidentally see.

Sunil Bhat sat on a tiny wooden stool sipping tea right outside the colony. He calls himself an entertainer, and has been to Dubai twice. Both times, he went on two-day trips, for advertisement shoots. The company shooting the ads needed a puppeteer, and got in touch with him through a mutual contact. Bhat was paid Rs 10,000 for each ad; the flight tickets, accommodations and food were paid for. Back in Jaipur, just like the others, he performs at upscale hotels such as Clarks Amer, Ram Bagh Palace, Trident Hotel, and wherever else he can get work. Discounting tips, he does not get paid. But this is what he knows, he told me, so this is what he will continue doing. “I have to earn enough to send my kid to school, he can’t be stuck doing puppetry,” he said. “There is no future in this.”

Close to Pani Pech, and visible from Deepak’s street, there is a tall water tank. Youth from the slum languish in its shade. On a recent afternoon, I joined a bunch of twenty-somethings there. They, too, had the same stories: of unpaid shows, of the government tossing them around the city, and the dying audience. They asked me to note down all their names. Banti. Banwari. Ani. Pawan. Lal. After all that, everyone fell back on the ground and stared at the water tank. No snazzy soundtracks; no thumping jingles. They just told stories of their fathers and grandfathers.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.