The show need not go on

May 21, 2023

The LAC has been trying to revive the puppet theatre for children. It has not succeeded

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Peeru’s Café has served to popularise the art of puppetry. — Photo: Lotus PR


mid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Lahore Arts Council (LAC) discontinued their decades-old tradition of hosting puppet shows for children every weekend at Alhamra, The Mall. The shows were expected to return last year in August. Only they didn’t.

Last year, it was reported that the puppet theatre would be revived. But it didn’t. The main reason cited is the diminishing audience interest.

As per the arts council, their last few shows had been performed to near-empty halls. This prompted them to shut down live puppet shows indefinitely. Should this be taken to mean that puppetry has no takers in a city that has produced and nurtured some of the world’s best known puppet-artists, storytellers and theatre performers?

Puppetry has been a predominant performing art in the subcontinent. It originated among the gypsies of Rajasthan, says Sarwat Ali, the culture critic. This gypsy-led puppet theatre carried folklore with them to different regions. It was an effective tool for oral transmission of knowledge.

In Lahore, the puppet theatre is said to have been introduced by noted actor, director and academic Navid Shahzad at Alhamra, in 1983, with Teen Sunehri Baalon Wala Jin, which was co-presented by Samina Ahmed.

The best part about puppet theatre is that it is enjoyed by adults and children alike. However, in our part of the world, due attention has never been given to children’s entertainment. There have been a few exceptions, though. On TV, we saw some highly entertaining puppet shows like Farooq Qaiser’s Kaliyan which remains iconic in the history of the state-owned PTV. Earlier, Samina Ahmed appeared on small screen with puppets in Akkar Bakkar, which was directed by Shoaib Hashmi.

During Gen Zia’s regime, when there were countless curbs on the freedom of expression, the puppet-art was used to great advantage. For instance, Uncle Sargam, with his inimitable wit and sardonic humour became a mouthpiece for the critics of the regime who would not have been able to voice the criticism directly.

An old photo of a rehearsal by Azad Theatre for their puppet play, Khwabnama, circa January 2017. — Photo: Facebook

The LAC can do better seeking more funds from the government to restart their once-popular puppet shows. It must invest more in marketing its puppet shows instead of shutting them down for lack of footfall.

The contribution of Lahore-based Rafi Peer’s Theatre Workshop (RPTW) in promoting puppet theatre can also not be denied. Every year, the group would bring in puppet-artists from around the globe at their world performing arts festivals. Sadly, the events were stopped for security reasons. Later, the group set up Lahore’s — as well as Pakistan’s — first puppetry museum. Their food spot, named Peeru’s, which recently opened a second outlet in the city in Cavalry Ground, also famously serves up iconic images of puppet-art from past festivals on the cafe’s wall of fame as well as its ceiling.

These days, mini puppet theatres are also to be seen at the myriad tourist spots in the Walled City including the Food Street on Fort Road. Here, the puppeteers present dance performances with their Rajasthani styled kathputlis (stringed dolls). These performances are so riveting that the passers-by can’t not stop to watch them.

Surely, the appeal of puppet art hasn’t waned, despite what the officials at the LAC would have you believe. It’s just that the government needs to patronise and invest in this performing art. We know how the Rafi Peerwalas had to look to the Norwegian embassy to sponsor their festivals.

The LAC can do better seeking more funds from the government to restart their once-popular puppet shows. Besides, it must invest more in marketing their puppet shows instead of shutting them down for lack of footfall. Social media platforms can be effectively utilised for this purpose. In the digital age very few people would know otherwise that Alhamra is showing — or has discontinued — live puppet shows for children.

The LAC must also spread the word and engage schools in these performances. Needless to say, the children will not only get entertained by these performances, but also learn about the centuries-old folk tales and fairy tales that are native to the region.

The writer is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He tweets UsamaAlee

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