On the outskirts of town is Gadsisar Lake. I walk to it, visit a temple on its shores and admire an octagonal chhatri standing on a pillared mandapa in the middle of the lake. The lake is half dry. I believe it has seen better seasons. By the edge of the lake is another chhatri. I climb up the few steps leading to the chhatri. A Rajasthani man is sitting in one corner with a string instrument. Like all men of the state, he wears a colourful turban. My arrival was invitation enough for him to launch into a ballad.
Ballad singers were traditionally grouped into either Bhats, Manganiyars or Langas. I learnt this only yesterday at the Fort Palace Museum. It is a tradition already in danger of extinction. I can tell by the uninteresting way in which this guy is playing before me. His instrument is not even tuned and the bow he uses is frayed. I regret not having a ten rupee note in change and pay him only three. He complains. His disappointed is soon relieved when a few foreign tourists come by and give him ten rupees each. They take a few pictures and hurry down. They don’t even bother to listen to his song.
Near the lake is the Jaisalmer Folklore Museum. I visit it and since I have nothing else planned for the rest of the day, I spent more than an hour here. I study every single object on display, read its description and take down notes. I think any activity can become interesting if one is a curious student. I learn a lot about Rajasthani culture and folklore. Foremost among them is the folk hero Paduji whose heroics are painted on cloth and sung as ballads. Some communities even worship Pabuji, crediting him for bringing the first camel to Rajasthan. As for camels, gorbandh is a camel necklace that often is a subject of romance and poetry. The tale of Dhola-Marooni is a romantic tale of love, separation and fulfillment, which is perhaps a subject of paintings I had seen in the Shekhawati region. As for dresses, the museum displays different ways of tying a man’s turban and different designs of the chuneri, a Rajasthani woman’s most treasured piece of garment. Another unique item on display is a kavad. This is painted wood with panels that open out to reveal stories. Mostly religious in nature they relate stories of Krishna, Ramayana or Mahabharata. They are objects of worship in their own right and stand in as mobile temples.
I learn that there is another museum by the main road not far from here. This museum is simply an extension of the other one, the Desert Cultural Centre & Folklore Museum. I learn that in the evenings there is a traditional puppet show. I am too old for puppet shows but I think I’ll attend it anyway.
I blog most of the afternoon and return to the place at six in the evening. The show is set to start at half six but I am the only one.
‘Actually there are two shows, at 6.30 and 7.30,’ comments the museum curator and founder. ‘Since you are the only one, maybe we will have just the second show.’
This center was opened in 1984 by N.K. Sharma, the old man who is sitting beside me on the sofa. On the coffee table before us are spread papers and files. On the wall hangs a photograph of President Zail Singh presenting Mr. Sharma with an award.
‘I was selected for a teacher’s award at a Republic Day function in 1986,’ he says. ‘I used to teach history and Hindi. Now I am retired.’
‘And you started this center?’
‘Yes,’ he replies and goes into a long pause. ‘People come here to Jaisalmer, see the havelis and the sand dunes but know nothing of our culture. That culture is disappearing quickly. I am making an effort to preserve it.’
‘I visited your museum near the lake this morning. It was excellent.’
‘Who has time for museums these days? Or puppet shows? Television gives them everything,’ he laments. ‘I am already 76 and I get very tired looking after this place morning till night. My son is not interested in this. I don’t know what will happen to this place when I am gone.’
There are plenty more exhibits at the center and I take time to study them while I wait for the show to begin. Finally at half past seven the show begins. A few kids with their parents have joined. The performers arrive, dressed in simple daily clothes. Mr. Sharma leads them in a puja. The performance starts with the first dance – Ganesh Vandana.
The pieces are all short and perhaps just right to retain the attention of children. A horseman tries to control his wayward horse and this makes hilarious drama. A serpent charmer tries in vain to tame his serpent and only at the end does it dance to his tune. A boy loses his ball. He searches for it everywhere and throws tantrums to the delight of the audience. When he finally finds it there is joy and celebration. A woman dances. The magic in her performance is really the control of the puppeteer over her swirling skirt.
In every piece there is high energy both in dance and music. A man plays the dhol, a percussion instrument. A couple of boys move their fingers deftly over the kartal, wooden clappers. The puppeteer effortlessly handles all the strings with his fingers. If a woman’s skirt covers her legs, then leg movements are not important. Leg movements are generally emphasized for animals that need it more to convey energy. Puppets are usually lifted clear off the ground, thrown helter skelter to create commotion but really there is control in every movement. The co-ordination between these movements and the music is impeccable.
There is also a social message at times for the audience. One puppet is dressed as both a man and a woman. When the woman is dancing the man’s face and body is hidden under her ghagra. When she is flipped, she hides under his dhoti. The message here is reincarnation – man and woman are forms of the same soul. A female child must be respected just as a male child.
I hope this center will continue for many more years to come even if real culture is losing itself in the face of modern times.