LAHORE: Originally from Multan, Raj Dulari moved to Lahore with her husband several years ago, in pursuit of the better life she believed her skills could afford her. But despite being one of the oldest puppet makers in the country, she is forced to perform on the streets today and make do with whatever money people throw at her creations, which take hours and hours of work to be completed.
“People think it is easy to make puppets but no one knows that it takes at least six months to prepare a single wood one,” says Dulari, speaking with The Express Tribune. She goes on to add that, “We paint and decorate the puppets and even stitch dresses for them. We have to prepare them according to the demands of our story.” The hardest part, however, is the actual performance. “We have to narrate their lines and even play music in sync and mastering puppet movements is no easy feat,” Dulari adds.
According to Dulari, puppeteering has been in her family for the past 400 years but seeing what has become of she and her husband, her children are hardly interested in taking it up. “My children ask me ‘When no one else cares, why do you?’” she shares. While there is little respect for different art forms in Pakistan, in general, puppeteering is one trade that no one has really cared much about. Although it is still a mainstay of many festivals that are held in rural areas, those who create them and put together the performances themselves wonder who is pulling the strings of their fate.
“My whole family is dependent on this. I have been doing it for 40 years now,” says Dulari.
Over the years, she has worked with the likes of Rafi Peer Theatre and performed in all four provinces for different organisers. She also knows various stories about Akbar, Raja Ranjeet Singh, Heer and Ranjha, Maan Singh and others by heart, having to narrate them as part of her performances.
But without taking names, Dulari says, “People have become rich using our skill and we are still on the road with our puppets.” Nowadays, she and her masterpieces can be found on the streets near Lahore Fort every day, where some of the passers-by offer a degree of interest in what she is doing – that too, on her lucky days. “I have also worked on films like Party Khan and Shakar and participated in various governments programmes, as well as at some elite universities,” she shared. But fate has had other plans for Dulari and her family. Echoing her sentiments, Dulari’s husband Jamil Akhtar claims, “There is no support for us! It is my request that people realise the importance of puppeteering and support it, otherwise it will be at risk.”
Despite bleak outcomes, both Dulari and Jamil remain faithful to the practice. “We know that we are representing art and doing unique work but the government and the public should recognise that. The government supported those who claimed that they are doing a lot for the promotion of puppets in country but in reality, it is us and our family who have struggled,” she states. According to her, people nowadays take pictures with the puppets but don’t think about those who have prepared them. And even fewer pay for the performance, although Dulari also beats the dholki, narrates the story, sings and moves the puppet herself. “This is not easy at the age of 55,” she admits. “Foreigners and art enthusiast give me respect and at performances in different cities, our organisers earn good money but they only pay us enough for bread. The only charm I see in puppeteering now is the fact that it’s a profession that my elders have passed on to me.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2016.