UDAIPUR, India - The young puppeteer insists it’s easy. With outstretched hands, he pulls the strings on the foot-tall man at his feet. The puppet shakes its head coquettishly; wood and cloth suddenly seem human. “Try,’’ says the puppeteer, offering me the strings. I shake my head, imagining the knots I would make; I’m content to watch him work his magic.
A few nights before, I had seen Vijay Jaga, 26, perform at a folk arts show in the courtyard of an 18th-century haveli, a traditional Indian mansion. We were in the heart of the northwestern city of Udaipur, known for royal palaces, luxury hotels, and traditional arts.
That evening, 125 audience members had laughed at his puppets’ fanciful antics. As drums thumped and a reed whistle rhythmically squeaked from Jaga’s mouth, one puppet jauntily bounced his detached head on his back, then his rump - back-rump-back-rump - in a wormlike dance. Then, barefoot dancers twirled across the stone-paved courtyard, whipping their ornate dresses into plumes of color. Another danced elegantly while carrying a tower of traditional water pots on her head.
Today, Jaga has swapped his costume of traditional tunic and billowy trousers for jeans and T-shirt. He plays with his son, 2, at his family’s simple home a few miles from Udaipur’s center (he commutes to his various puppet gigs by motorbike). His mother, his wife, and two teenage sisters sit in their small cement courtyard sewing a puppet and plumping its body with cotton. They laugh as the toddler bobs his head to a drum thumped by his father, showing early promise as a performer. No surprise, considering Jaga, who started learning the craft when he was 6, comes from a long line of puppeteers spanning more than two centuries.
Located in the desert state of Rajasthan, Udaipur is known for glittering Lake Pichola and the five-star hotels on its shores. They range from the new Leela Palace, opened in 2009, to the 18th-century Taj Lake Palace. The opulent Lake Palace, immortalized in the James Bond movie “Octopussy,’’ sits in the middle of the lake. The maharaja of Udaipur built it in 1746 as a retreat with a guaranteed water view. In 1963 Maharaja Bhagwat Singhji converted it into an 83-room hotel. Today its most expensive suite costs $13,200 per night. From the water, the Palace’s white walls gleam like an elusive pearl. Only guests may visit, on boats from a private jetty.
Away from these exclusive hotels is a wealth of grass-roots folk arts and culture amid Udaipur’s jumbled streets. Painters, dancers, musicians - and puppeteers - in the area have passed their arts down from generation to generation. Their legacies are visible everywhere. Shop windows brim with handmade puppets and miniature paintings. Elephants, tigers, and camels are rendered with exquisite strokes of a brush made of squirrel hair. The most expensive paintings are studded with chips of rubies and amethyst. One day, a young miniatures painter grabs my hands and in a matter of minutes paints a tiny peacock and elephant on each thumb nail.
I first saw Jaga and his puppets at a folk arts performance staged every evening at Bagore Ki Haveli, a former royal home built in the late 1700s. By day, Bagore Ki Haveli is a sleepy museum near a dramatic tripolia, a three-arched gate, on the edge of Lake Pichola where sari-clad women wash clothes in murky waters. The museum’s dusty cases display Udaipur’s traditional aristocratic culture: the contents of a noblewoman’s dressing room and her saris, a rustic kitchen with a hearth.
By night, Bagore Ki Haveli’s courtyard comes to life as an atmospheric stage for dancers, musicians, and puppeteers. “It’s airy, like a Greek theater,’’ says Deepak Dixit, the 40-something organizer and emcee of the nightly performance. “It itself is a set,’’ he says, glancing at the illuminated stone arches one evening after a show.
Dixit started the program in 2000 as a way to showcase Udaipur’s folk arts. People usually cannot get to villages where many artists live, he explains. At first, only a handful of people came to see the show. Then after “mouth publicity,’’ says Dixit, momentum gathered. Now, the shows enjoy a packed audience, though tourism wanes in the summer when temperatures can soar to 120 degrees. It costs just $2 for foreigners ($1.20 for Indians) to squeeze onto the benches tucked next to the courtyard’s leafy trees where spotlights hang from their branches.
The shows cater to tourists, yet they help keep Udaipur’s arts alive by creating an audience and a market. “I feel very proud and happy I’m doing this for people. It’s just like a social service,’’ says Dixit. Jaga, for example, sells puppets after the show. Prices range from $2 to $25 for horses and riders, snake charmers, jugglers, busty dancers, and camels that kneel gracefully under a skilled hand.
The show’s venue itself represents efforts to revive the arts. Bagore Ki Haveli’s 138 rooms and balconies, many adorned with carvings and frescoes, “lay in darkness and ruin for nearly half a century until 1986’’ when it became offices for the government’s West Zone Cultural Center, according to a wall note in the museum. Extensive repair and restoration took place (and is still happening, as evident from the bags of cement and workers napping in an outer courtyard). Blueprints of the restoration in the late 1980s note: “bats on the ceiling to be removed’’ and “the chittor stone flooring has swollen due to upward pressure of mango roots.’’
Before India gained independence in 1949, royal patronage supported many artists and craftspeople. An abundance of Udaipur’s arts is on view in the sprawling museum complex that is the City Palace, situated on a hill overlooking the lake. It was built in 1559 under Maharaja Udai Singh and contains hundreds of rooms after his successors tacked on their own palaces over the centuries. In serene courtyards, musicians once played to royal audiences. Another famed courtyard is decorated with peacock murals made of green glass inlay. A warren of rooms is devoted to miniature paintings.
In modern times, Indian royalty indulged in other ways. A few miles from the City Palace, the maharaja’s vintage car collection is on view. Twenty cars, including a 1934 Phantom 2 Rolls-Royce with its bug-eyed headlamps and a 1930 Ford Model A, are housed in individual garages like retired horses in stables.
But music and art are still present in everyday life. A 10-minute walk from the City Palace, the tall spires of Jagdish Temple loom over an intersection snarled with traffic. Several flights of steep stone stairs lead to the entrance of this Hindu temple built in 1651. Here, attendants cluster around a fire to warm their hands and sandal-clad feet over flickering orange flames. Presumably, they keep watch over racks where visitors must leave their shoes before entering.
Even at 9 p.m. one Sunday this January, locals walk and pray, stopping to press their heads against intricate stone shrines carved with elephants, flowers, and other motifs. A sign says that the poor are fed at the temple every day. Inside the main shrine, about 15 people sit cross-legged on mats in front of an altar decorated with pictures of Hindu gods and marigold wreaths. They sing loudly in Hindi as young men beat drums and clang cymbals. One woman beckons me to sit closer to the group.
Back on the dirty street, honking motorbikes, auto rickshaws, cars, the occasional lumbering elephant, and wedding parades, complete with brass bands, portable generators, and electric chandeliers, clog the narrow roads.
Even when seeking solace at my lakefront hotel, Kankarwa Haveli, an appreciation for aesthetics still blooms. The restored haveli was built in 1805 and converted into a hotel in 1995. It has original stone floors and antique wooden doors that fold into place. In the rooms, white appliqué curtains hang in cozy window seats from where hunching over a laptop doesn’t seem so bad. Bright, embroidered Rajasthani pillow covers accessorize the beds.
A parlor in an alcove has traditional wooden benches and chairs accented with crimson cushions. Three bottle-shaped windows look directly onto the glittering lake, like portholes on a ship. I watch as two European travelers with bulging rucksacks stop to photograph the parlor and its scalloped archway.
And there is always the lake, which offers a tranquillity rare in urban India. The rooftop terraces of many of Udaipur’s hotels, whether budget or luxury, have spectacular views. Wrought-iron tables and chairs dot the rooftop restaurant of nearby Jaiwana Haveli - front-row seats for a show that takes place nearly every day. The sun sinks over the lake in a wash of pink and orange sherbet hues; light breaks into a million dazzling jewels over the water. One of the best shows in town is free.
If you go...
What to do
City Palace On the banks of Lake Pichola
Sprawling palace complex built in 1559 by Maharaja Udai Singh and his successors. Museum admission $1.50. Sound and Light Show nightly. Tickets $3-$8.
Bagore Ki Haveli
A (mostly) restored haveli on Lake Pichola turned into a sleepy museum of aristocratic life. Admission 60 cents. The evening folk arts show features dancers, musicians, and puppeteers. Tickets $2.
Where to stay
Jaiwana Haveli 14 Lal Ghat
Spotless rooms in a friendly, relaxed environment. Pleasant, reasonably priced rooftop restaurant. About a 5-minute walk to City Palace. Doubles $40-$45.
Kankarwa Haveli 26 Lal Ghat
Renovated heritage haveli. About a 5-minute walk to City Palace. Rooms $59-$96, including breakfast.
Leela Palace Hotel 011-91-294-670-1234
Five-star hotel opened in 2009 on the western side of Lake Pichola, across from the City Palace. Rooms $700 per night, but as low as $350 in the summer off-season.
Taj Lake Palace Center of Lake Pichola
Five-star heritage hotel built in 1746 as a royal palace. Not open to the public. Rooms and suites $780-$4,600 per night.
Where to eat
Ambrai Restaurant Hotel Amet Haveli
Outside Chandpole, on Lake Pichola
Lakeside garden restaurant in a restored haveli hotel. Stunning views of the City Palace and Lake Palace, especially at night. Many entrees $5-$10.
Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel 23-25 Lal Ghat
Rooftop restaurant of this modern, restored haveli has sweeping lake views. Many entrees $5-$10.
Jaiwana Haveli 14 Lal Ghat
Rooftop restaurant has tasty Rajasthani dishes (about $3) along with north Indian and continental dishes.