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Dangling on strings

Despite shrinking funding for cultural activities, Rafi Peer Theatre keeps the tradition going by organising a three-day puppet festival

Dangling on strings

Seven groups participated from all over the country in the thirteenth National Puppet Festival held at the Raiwind Cultural Complex of the Rafi Peer Theatre last week. The Puppet Museum and Peerus Café now designated as a Cultural Complex, became a rendezvous for people from all ages, especially children to enjoy their mornings and evenings out. There were two segments — one in the daytime and the other in the evenings; the former to facilitate the young school children to come and witness the show preferably with their school mates. In the three-day affair the types of puppets varied from string to rod to glove to hand as well as bigger ones commonly known as muppets.

If one critically examines the traditional string puppet plays, there appears to be a close link with folklore and oral renditions. It is closely allied to the various folk tales that have been in circulation, the most-repeated being the story of Patay Khan.

It appears that folk tales were the alternative history or the people’s history of the time — the mainstream being documented by the mighty courts. The lore of Dulla Bhatti and the power struggle, the upheavals during the height of the mighty Mughal Empire are glamourised much more in these versions than in the standardised narrative. These histories in various dialects, mainly Rajasthani in the case of string puppets, have come down centuries from one generation to the next giving a more wholesome idea about that era.

In a society which takes great pride in its oral repositories, these should be looked at and documented more closely. Other than the grand narrative of the central empire, the local histories, their woes and happinesses have been recounted in tales, anecdotes and episodes which at times went contrary to the narrative being thrust from the top.

Though puppetry had been introduced by groups in the country, especially by Samina Ahmed at the Alhamra, made popular by PTV through the creative endeavours of Farooq Qaiser and Pakistan National Council of the Arts’ puppet group, it was the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop that really uplifted its level by holding big festivals.

Over the last few years, the funding for such cultural activities especially from sources outside the country has been dropping considerably. There were a number of foreign organisations that funded these in Pakistan, especially those that also have a significant proportion of Pakistanis living in their countries. It was meant to also establish bigger and wider links other than those merely of an economic nature and helped both societies appreciate each other’s cultures and differences in values. Of late, that help has been on the decline. It could be that the economies — once affluent — do not have finances to dispense with, or that they have been reviewing the entire policy. Whatever the reason, festivals once staged with such help are also learning to be on their own in managing finances and to be self-sustaining ventures in their own right.

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Though puppetry had been introduced by groups in the country, especially by Samina Ahmed at the Alhamra, made popular by PTV through the creative endeavours of Farooq Qaiser and Pakistan National Council of the Arts’ puppet group, it was the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop that really uplifted its level by holding big festivals. It was the staging of a series of international festivals that exposed people here to the wider use that puppetry can be put to — more or less treated almost as actors in dramas.

There has been a debate over the years about the financial viability of art forms in the country. While some have been self sustaining, others have relied on funding and support from various quarters. Probably, film was the first medium that was able to generate funds to be self-sustaining in the first four decades of Pakistan. Then theatre, the popular theatre which is often looked down upon by sections (arty-farty types) for being risqué and bawdy, started to make profits which was then reinvested in the same business. Many an actor and theatre personnel was able to make a good living out of this and were able to spare time for ‘meaningful activity’ in the various forms of art in spare time.

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Similarly in television, private channels started to pay well though again there was the same hue and cry about falling standards as it has been seen to encroach sensitive areas seen by many to fall within the range of censorship.

Due to decreasing funding, groups have to sustain themselves. The Rafi Peer, when it held its Mystic Music Sufi Festival a couple of months back, ticketed the show and were able to recover not all the money but some of it. They were then emboldened to continue with their festivals because the most important fact is that the show should go on. They now have a creditable history of promoting the performing arts in the country and to retreat from that would be not the right thing. It can have a snowballing effect and be more harmful, going beyond the mere fact of not holding an individual festival.

This time around, the seven groups that participated from all over Pakistan were Rafi Peer Puppet Show, Alhamra Puppet Theatre, PNCA Puppet Theatre, Asghar Bahawalpuri Puppet Theatre, Folk Puppet Theatre and Magic & Juggling Show.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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