Courtesy of Alamy

At Loose Ends

The night air outside is cold, but the tent cups its protective hands around performers and audience alike and draws us into the shared experience of the show.

Umesh Bhat sits cross-legged to one side of the stage, his dholak between his knees, narrating the opening lines of the story with practised ease. His words conjure up the landscape of Khavda – the sun-baked village, its throat parched from three successive years of drought, the emaciated cattle dying one by one, the daily quest for water. And on this wilting, withering land, a single, unlikely blossom – young love.

‘The jackals of Kalo Dungar gather around Najab’s humble offering,’ Umesh is saying now. ‘It is an auspicious sign. God smiles upon this journey.’

From my place at the centre of the stage, I face the audience. Not for string puppets the bright spotlights of the big stage, the necessary elevation over a large crowd. The katputli show, by its very nature, is for a small, intimate audience. We perform on a miniature stage, at eye-level with our spectators, close enough that each intricate move may be observed and appreciated.

‘With renewed courage, Najab mounts his faithful camel Allahrakha.’

The dholak lets loose a crescendo of beats and Allahrakha lurches to his feet under me.

‘Behind him, the distant lights of Khavda glitter and beckon in the dark. But Najab has eyes only for what lies ahead—’

A familiar tug of strings. I raise my hand to my forehead and squint into the distance.

A fresh sheet of painted cloth is deftly unfurled, and the backdrop of the hulking black basalt hill, the Kalo Dungar, and its pack of feasting jackals is replaced by a white, hauntingly beautiful expanse.

‘—the mighty Rann of Kutch,’ Umesh says, ‘and, somewhere within its folds, the international border between India and Pakistan. He must cross both to reach his love.’

The beats slow to a steady rhythm and Allahrakha sets off across the stage with me swaying in tandem in the gold and orange saddle on his back.

The audience breaks into spontaneous applause. This is a setting they can identify with, probably having done some of these very things themselves here at the Rann Utsav. I have seen the tourism posters fluttering everywhere, advertising camel rides into the salt flats of the Rann, tours of surrounding villages, trips to the shrine at Kalo Dungar to witness the age-old custom of feeding its famed jackals. ‘Kutch nahin dekha, tho kuch nahin dekha,’ the posters declare. If you haven’t seen Kutch, you haven’t seen anything.

With the characteristic Aara rara rara rara ra, Umesh bursts into song. The white Rann, he sings, gleams in the night as though the moon has descended from the heavens and planted itself at Najab’s feet. But the desert is a seductress, an illusionist who shows the lonely traveller mirages of his deepest desires in her barren heart. Only the strong of mind and the brave of heart can hope to romance the Rann and survive. . . .

Every aspect of the katputli stage – the bright, embroidered cloth draped over the top of the bamboo frame, the painted backdrop, the proscenium, the low frill of the stage curtains – is designed to keep the focus on the puppet, while concealing the puppeteer. The fingers quietly working my strings, hidden from the audience, belong to Umesh’s brother Kamlesh Bhat. In his expert hands, Allahrakha moves with perfect grace, his front and back legs rising and falling in synchrony. It isn’t easy achieving this level of coordination – my own master, Mridul, would be satisfied with just having the camel hop across the stage – but Kamlesh Bhat is a perfectionist. With his fingers pouring life into me, I feel the smooth, magic flow of energy through my being, transforming the narrator’s song to action. Every movement feels natural, like it’s my own. Over the past few days, on this stage, something deep within me has begun to shake off its cobwebs – the knowledge of what it is to be alive.

We reach the other end of the stage and the curtain descends for a change of scene. Allahrakha and I are hoisted over the backdrop into the backstage area where the rest of the cast await their turn: Aftab, Najab’s father; Zaman, the smuggler; Kaley Shah, the Pakistani spice-seller; and, of course, Fatimah, the spice-seller’s beautiful daughter.


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