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Birju Ranaji, puppeteer born


I never went to school. As a seven-year-old I started going from village to village with my father. He peformed puppet shows in the village market place and I played the tabla.

Ours has been a family of puppeteers. Two generations ago, our clan moved from Rajasthan to Gujarat. The art was passed from father to son over the years. My father Ranaji Rawat is a very famous puppeteer. He has travelled to several countries for cultural festivals.

I haven't been abroad, but I have travelled to many places in India. You ask anyone around the big hotel near my house and they will tell you who am I, they will even take you by their hand and bring you to my house.

I don't do many shows now. People are not interested in this kind of entertainment. They want television. It is mostly the hotels that call me for these shows. They arrange it for their guests. I have done a show on the Royal Orient Express for the last six months. I board the train every Friday at 4:30 in the morning. My son Vicky accompanies me and helps with the show.

He is nine years old. I have already taught him to play the tabla. He is pretty good. Since he remains busy with me he doesn't go to school. I have two children, another son and a daughter. They are younger. But I will send them to school. Perhaps, later I will send Vicky as well.

The passengers on the train really like my show. I relate stories of famous Rajput kings and the battles they fought. To give it a present day flavour I add some bits of Hindi film songs, especially those featuring Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit.

My wife makes all the puppets at home. She is also uneducated. First she used to come with me for the shows but now she has to stay at home and look after the children. Moreover, so many of us cannot travel together. I have to carry my things in two big bags, there's even a long stick. So it is much easier when only my son travels with me. My wife even makes stuffed animals. I do the final stuffing and she does the mirror work. I sell these after each performance and make Rs 45 to 50 on each toy.

Puppets Life is difficult. But everybody has to work hard for a living. I get off from the train in Junagadh. It takes us eight hours to get back to Ahmedabad. I even have to change a bus at Rajkot. Out of the Rs 550 I get for the train show and the extra Rs 200 to Rs 500 from selling toys, the return fare itself costs Rs 200.

I earn anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 per month. Daily expenditure is nearly Rs 100. Rs 15 goes straight away for milk and on most days we need more than one packet. I live in a small pucca house. There is electricity in my house but I pay Rs 150 to this neighbour who has a meter, every month.

I want my children to be educated. I want them to go to an English medium school. I know some people in these schools. But only if it is written in their fate can my children study and become successful. What is the use of thinking of something that cannot be possible?

I bought a small 14 inch black/white television set a couple of years back.The main reason I bought it was because my children were sometimes driven out of other people's homes where they went to watch programmes. Now more than the children my wife watches television. I hardly watch anything. But I like Alif Laila and Krishna.

Puppets People say puppeteering is a dying art. I know it will never die. There are certain people who are still interested. I have performed in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and many other cities. My father who has been to London, Paris and America. He is again going to America. If I get an opportunity I will surely go.

I no longer go from village to village like I did earlier. It is not feasible any more. They have to be asked to give the money after the show. They don't give it on their own. So I have stopped going to villages.

I have always voted for the Congress. I liked Rajiv Gandhi. Due to him our houses were stopped from being demolished and now I have a pucca house. The present government is not very good. It is not doing anything much now. I've forgotten the name of my chief minister. He's just entered office.

Basically, I am happy. With no complaints about my way of life. But I sometimes dream. I too want a car some day.

As told to Archana Masih. Photographs: Jewella C Miranda