The antiquity of Indian puppetry is an established fact and it has long been one of the primary forms of traditional entertainment. Instances of various kinds of performing puppets are found in ancient and medieval Indian texts.
Folk Puppetry in West Bengal is called Putul Naach : Putul is a word that describes both a doll and a puppet in Bengali while Naach means Dance. There are references to puppetry in the medieval folk ballads of undivided Bengal. Traditional forms of puppetry found in West Bengal are rod (Dang), glove (Beni or Bene) and string (Taar or Shuto).
Both rod and glove puppets are indigenous to Bengal while string puppetry was an import. While shadow puppetry does not exist in Bengal, there is a very unique and rare form practiced among some Santal communities of West Bengal and Jharkhand, the Chadar Badar or Chadar Bandni.
The thrust towards modern puppetry in India started sometime in the sixties. Puppet Dance now came to be identified as Puppet Theatre. But while there is no doubt about the superior techniques and production values of contemporary puppet theatre, traditional puppetry acts are still enjoy popularity among and the acceptance of rural spectators
The traditional puppeteers or puppet troupes are almost always ill educated, landless farmers or labourers, who are to be found in village fairs and festivals in the winters. Their art being of an itinerant nature, they carry the objects of their art with them, packed into boxes or folded and rolled into a cloth bag. While the rod and string puppeteers require a makeshift stage, a curtain and sometimes a backdrop, the fast disappearing glove puppet needs no such props and it is the dexterity and musicality of the lone performer that holds its audience in thrall.
The themes for the operatic puppet shows are mostly myths and legends, but have for the past several decades been increasingly influenced by the popular themes of the Jatra folk theatre tradition of West Bengal. Historical, social and even political themes began to be incorporated. Music to this day, is customarily used live.
But many puppeteers, who, with their simple themes, basic props and traditional music, found themselves unable to compete with increasingly popular forms of modern entertainment, gave up their tradition and moved to other occupations. Patronage of this ancient folk form is conspicuous by its absence.
The roots of the glove puppet or Beni or Bene Putul tradition lie in the district of East Medinipur in West Bengal. The form is a solo act that has existed for over a hundred years, but sadly today, there are only a handful of traditional glove puppeteers struggling to keep their art alive in the lone village of Padmatamali in East Medinipur.
The glove puppeteer is narrator, singer and actor, providing the dialogue for both the puppets, as he manoeuvres them. The lyrics are often laced with humour and sarcasm while the music is based on either common folk tunes or even popular Hindi or Bengali songs. There is no set format for the movements and there is no stage.
The Beni Putul puppeteers traditionally belong to a social group in the lower strata of society. In the old days, they would go from door to door demonstrating their performance or they would visit local fairs and festivals. Squatting on their haunches, they would extract two often well-worn puppets and proceed to enact scenes from the epics and manage to eke out a living in this fashion.
But modernization, and with it, the advent of modern entertainment has killed the demand for this kind of traditional entertainment. Today, the puppeteers barely manage to sustain themselves and their children are not interested in learning the art. Yet, the keepers of this heritage refuse to give up hope.
Glove puppet heads are traditionally made from terracotta and then painted in a stylized manner, while the hollow arms and hands are made of wood to facilitate the vigorous, rhythmic clapping
Hidden under the puppet's clothing, the glove puppeteer's thumb and middle finger are used to manipulate the hands, while the forefinger is used to manipulate the head.
Basanta Ghoroi, yet another master glove puppeteer of Padmatamali village demonstrates how the fingers are used to manipulate the glove puppet with a dummy head made from the seed of a date palm fruit.
Since the use of clay made the glove puppets heavy, lighter mediums like papier mache and thermocole (polystyrene) are also being used, more in line with contemporary puppetry. The hands of course must be made of wood.
The traditional rod puppet form of West Bengal or Dang Putul Naach (Rod Doll Dance), is a tradition that goes back to the 14th century. However, the emphasis on this form of puppetry is more on drama than dance. There is a great influence of the jatra (a traditional theatre form of Bengal) tradition in this form of puppetry – in the costumes, themes, script and enactment.
Some of the families have been carrying on this art for generations together – as much as 100 years or more. But the form is on the verge of extinction today and exists mainly in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.
The Dang Putul (or Dang-er Putul) of West Bengal is realistic in design. While it is entirely carved out of wood, the face is further coated with a clay-and-cloth layer. The puppet is painted and always clothed in gaudy, glittering costumes. There is a hole in each hand of the puppet so that a sword or bow or mace can be inserted – depending on the character of the puppet.
The puppets have joints at the shoulders, elbows and sometimes even a wrist – and do not have legs. The head is mounted on a central rod or pole, which passes vertically through the torso and is then tied to the puppeteer's waist.
With bells around his ankles, the puppeteer either moves or dances to the music, according to the script, with the puppet attached firmly to his waist. At the same time, he manipulates both the arms with a cord hidden under the clothes. The singers are often the puppeteers themselves or there is a separate person singing and delivering the stylized prose dialogues.
A group of musicians, sitting at the side of the stage provide vocal support and the accompanying music. Both music and dialogue are usually very dramatic, in keeping with the traditional folk theatre style.
The performance of these rod puppets takes place on a makeshift stage spanned by a high curtain over which the puppet performance can be seen.
The origin of string puppets in Bengal, it is believed, is from the ‘Kathputli’ or wooden puppets of Rajasthan. About a hundred years ago, a group of itinerant puppeteers from Rajasthan had come to perform at a local fair in a village (now in Bangladesh) in undivided Bengal. Inspired by the performance, the locals adopted the form and it soon became a popular form of entertainment in the region.
After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, most of the puppeteers relocated to villages in Nadia district of West Bengal. It was thus that string puppetry became a part of West Bengal`s folk culture.
Just like rod puppetry, there is a stage, live music and the main singer. But organizing string puppet shows is a costly affair. Due to repeated losses incurred, professional puppeteers were forced to look for alternative sources of income. Thus from about 50 groups who had managed to fight against all odds in the 1990s, the number has dwindled to just two or three groups today.
String puppets are made of organic matter, usually shola-pith or sponge-wood, a plant that grows wild in the wetlands. They are manipulated by at least six strings. Unless specifically required for a character, puppets do not have legs, the absence of which is hidden by the clothes.
Creator, Writer & Photographer — Ratnaboli Bose for Daricha Foundation
Video — Ratnaboli Bose, Nadim Khan
Video Editor — Dhritiman Das
Video Subtitling — Rita Sridhar
Additional Photo credit — Atasi Nanda Goswami
Translation — Ankita Bose
Text Reference — Bangadesher Putul Natyakala, Dr Subho Joardar, pub. Roots
Puppeteers — Arabindo Ghoroi, Basanta Ghoroi, Rampada Ghoroi, Tapas Karmakar , Gobindo Naskar & Goutam Gayen & Party