Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of radio or television, stories in India were passed along by word of mouth. When warriors returned home they conveyed their battle tales to the kings and local landlords. They drew the combat scene on the ground using sticks of wood to illustrate the movements of their brigade versus those of the opposition. Kings started commissioning Kalakars (artists) to celebrate their conquests by telling these stories in the form of entertainment. The sticks of wood gradually became more elaborate and developed into ornately painted puppets with strings and movable parts.

The kings and local landlords realised that these shows were a powerful communications device to spread tales of victory to the neighbouring towns. You could say it was the earliest form of public relations! The Kalakars, in turn, lived by their own rules. Nomadic people by nature, they roamed from village to village, spreading the news of the rulers. They were the king’s most powerful asset but also his greatest enemy. If the ruler did not pay the Kalakars sufficiently, they would tell negative stories about the royal family and damage its image. A unique relationship ensued as a result.

Puppeteers were not the only storytellers. Families of snake charmers, acrobats, jugglers, magicians, singers, dancers and drummers are also called “kalakar” (which simply means, “to do art”). Although each family had its own traditions, they shared a free-spirited, nomadic and somewhat rebellious nature – travelling from place to place to do their art.

Today, many kalakar have stopped their roaming. Their talent for traditional storytelling has become a dying art, usurped by faster methods of communications, such as the Internet and 24-hour cable television. The kalakar face these modern day realities but their spirited interest in the arts continues. In New Delhi, about 9,000 people have moved to a colony called Kathputli Colony (“puppeteer’s colony”) in Shadipur. Here, they continue to practice their art, the secrets of which have been passed on through the generations. They still make shows and they still travel, preferably on commission…