Age-old tradition of puppet theatre- A dying Art

I Dance the Way You Make Me Dance
How Is the Puppet to blame?

"The moulvis (religious leaders) in Sunamganj once tried to stop my show

With this article we pay our homage to Dhan mia, a genuine upholder of the tradition of puppet show in our country. A true lover of the art, he persistently refused to mix the age-old tradition of puppet theatre with modern techniques that some of the new puppeteers have been doing. We should do everything we can to take this tradition forward and let it not die.

The tradition of rod puppet in Bengal goes back to the end of fourteenth century and known as a Putul Natch (Puppet dance), with an emphasis on operatic singing and performance of a Jatra (folk play). The dancing and the acting elements of the performance are hinged on the traditions of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.

It is not known how old the tradition of puppets dances is in Bengal. The first reference to puppets is, however, found in yusuf-zulekha, a 15th century epic. There are three forms of puppets in Bengal: rod puppets, string puppets and glove puppets. The puppeteer manipulates string puppets with strings so that the puppets appear to be dancing. As the musicians play their drums, cymbals and flutes, an artist sings a song and makes the puppets dance to reflect the mood of the song. Rod puppets and string puppets are used to present palagan or narrative plays, usually on the stories of Radha-Krishna and Rama-Sita.

Yusuf-Zulekha a romantic story in verse written in the bangla language. shah muhammad sagir, a court-poet of Sultan Giyasuddin Azam Shah of Gaura (1389-1410), wrote the book in the 15th century at the Suntan's command. The book upholds the teachings of religion and ethics through love stories culled from the Quran, where moral teachings and the greatness of the Almighty are expressed through the love story of Yusuf and Zulekha. Side by side with the religious teachings, human sentiments as well as the greatness of islam has been depicted in the work. The book ends with the supernatural story of the love between Ibn Amin, Yusuf's brother, and Bidhuprabha. The last part of the book represents the writer's contribution to the original story.

Written in payar, or a metrical measure with lines of fourteen syllables, and tripadi, another Bangla meter with three feet, the book is split into chapters narrating some trivial events. The mention of raga and tal, or tune and measures, at the beginning of each chapter indicates that the pieces were originally meant for singing. The diction and the style of the work bear the signs of urbanity.

In addition to Shah Muhammad Sagir, poets like abdul hakim, shah garibullah, Gholam Safatullah, Sadeq Ali and Fakir Mohammad wrote stories based on the Yusuf-Zulekha motif in the Middle Ages. The first two of these poets wrote in Bangla while others used a mixture of two languages reminiscent of Dobhasi literature. Ferdousi (11th century) and Jami (15th century), two great figures of persian literature, also wrote verses on the love story of Yusuf and Zulekha to uphold Sufistic mysticism. Some poets of Bengal have also followed in their tradition. [Wakil Ahmed]

The puppets have a broad social base and cast a wide net. They have great absorbing capacity and keep incorporating new thematic and textual material drawn from social life, customs and beliefs. They also present an authentic portrait of the society at different periods of its history. This makes them an important social document as well as a cultural text. The socio-cultural perspective on the puppet tradition awaits the attention of the sociologists and anthropologists and of the scholars of the puppet traditions.

The period between 10th and 15th centuries saw a decline of the traditional Indian form of theatre. When theatre once again emerged, it was in a spectacular array of village forms, each with its unique manner of presentation and, more importantly, in its own language. This village theatre, unlike Sanskrit drama, rarely traveled beyond the communities within which it was created, and comprised both amateurs and professionals. Religion played an important role in its revival. Like the emergence of Vaishnavism, a religious movement which centers on devotion (bhakti) of man for God as Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Unlike orthodox Hindus, followers of Vaishnavism believed that man could approach God directly, rather than with the aid of a sacred interpreter. The simple act of repeating God's names was considered an act of faith. Thus, theatre became the perfect vehicle for communicating that faith through depicting the acts of god, both for those performing it as well as those witnessing it. The Ramlila and Raslila, performed in various north Indian states, are excellent examples of this kind of theatre. While most rural theatre forms were closely interlinked with religion, secular theatre, purely for entertainment value, also existed. Nautanki, performed in several states of north India and the Tamasha in Maharashtra are two examples.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism, (Bengal) Vaishnavism, is a Vaishnava religious movement founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the late 1400's. The focus of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is the devotional worship (bhakti) of Radha and Krishna, and their many divine incarnations as the supreme forms of God. Most popularly this worship takes the form of singing Radha and Krishna's holy names, such as ' Hare', 'Krishna' and 'Rama', which is known as kirtan. The movement is sometimes referred to as the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya referring to its traditional origins in the disciplic succession of spiritual masters (gurus) believed to originate from Brahma.

The history of Bangla literature is capacious. It has been the ground that was tilled in many different ways at various points of time to make many different harvests. "It was the military feudalism during the rule of Allauddin Hussain Shah (1494-1590) that Mahabharata and Ramayana were first translated in Bangla. The state language was Farsi (Parsian), and Sanskrit was the language of the Hindu pundits; it was in this backdrop that the Hindu epics were first translated in the popular language that was Bangla," points out Salimullah Khan, a linguist with a strong penchant for historicity, one who is also a writer who translated a number of philosophical works. He pin points the rise of Chaitanya Dev, the Vaishnav avatar, as being the Renaissance of Bengal. "Sixteenth century is the time of Chaitanya Dev, and it is the beginning of Modernism in Bengal. The concept of 'humanity' that came into fruition is contemporaneous with that of Europe," notes Khan. He believes that all hopes of progressing on that humanistic line were dashed when the British came and forced all things Bangla into a "subordinate position".

Back in the 16th century, the Vaishnav movement led by Chaitanya had various social, political and literary implications. Most importantly Vaishnavism forced to bring the language of the masses to the fore. "The discourse of knowledge was Sanskrit at that time. It was Chaitanya who emerged from Sylhet and settled in Orissa to spread his humanistic ideas that spurred a process of interaction between the elite and the subaltern," Khan points out.

Chaitanya led a revolt against the Sanskrit-speaking pundits of his time. The Sri Krishna Kirttan, a series of story-telling lyric poems, is a major work in Bangla of his time. "It is the tale of Uttar Pradesh retold in Bangla," says Khan. "The Radha-Krishna tale of north Indian origin assumed Bangali characteristics in Sri Krishna Kirttan," continues Khan. He terms the Bengal Vaishnavismthat contributed in bringing Bangla into use by superseding Sanskrit in the "phase one" of the history of Bangla literature.

After the advent of Sri Chaitanya a strong musical environment in Bengal established itself as a way of worshipping in the form of nam sankrittan (chanting of the names Hari & Krishna), Viashnab padavali krittan ( a semi or near classical form of Indian music sung by expert singers setting music to selected parts of Vaishnab Padabalis composed by famous composer like Chandidas, Gyandas, Govindadas, Joydev etc. The talas, meaning the beats applied, often tend to be of very difficult matrixes. These are extremely lyrical in character and mostly composed on the theme of love and separation between Sri Radha and Sri Krishna). For this reason, it got almost spontaneously and unanimously acknowledged that if any idea or emotion relating to God and Religion had to be expressed, it ought to be through song and music. Since the Bouls derived inspiration substantially from Vaishnabism, they also chose, in a way of natural selection, their songs to be the medium of expression for their faith and ideas.

So in the songs of these Muslim Bouls one discovers a unique secular approach in defining the mystery of the Creation, the bondage of divine love between Man and the Almighty, a generous acceptance of the both faiths of Vaisavism of the Hindus and Sufism of the Muslims. The Bouls of the Hindu class usually dress like the Vaishnabs wearing a string of beads around their necks and adorning their foreheads with tilaks. They wear on their persons a loosely fitted overall like clothing either yellow or red.

The Fakirs of Sufi faith also used to assemble in solitude to exchange and express their religious ideas and experiences through songs and dances known as 'Sama'. The Bouls of the Hindu community and the Muslim Fakirs of Sufi faith met together separately in their respective joints (akhras or asthanas) away from the locality and would discuss details of their mystic faith and realizations, through songs. Songs were their mode of self expression and an inseparable part of their existence.

It was around 1650 A.D which we may call the time of first evolution of Boul songs which flourished through the 18th century unto the end of the 19th century. Understanding the metaphysical through the physical or searching for the Reality behind the Appearance, constitutes the basic concept of the religious quest of the Bouls. This they call as the 'Rup-Swarup Tatta'. The mystic journey of the soul centering round the physical body for liberation from the bondage of physical and worldly attractions leading to the realization of the ultimate truth and joy of the highest kind, is the root of the essential spirituality of the Bouls.

Shadow, (Gombeyatta of Karnataka, Ravana Chhaya of Orissa), Glove (Gopalila of Orissa, Pavai Koothu of Tamil Nadu), Doll (Bommalattam of Tamil Nadu and the Mysore State and Putul Nautch of Bengal) and string puppets (Kathputli of Rajasthan and Sakhi Kundhei of Orissa) were some of the popular forms.

In Bengal, Bangladesh (also W. Bengal, India), we have the Putul Nautch, a rod-puppet form. Descriptions of these puppets are reminiscent of automata, and the presentation of these could be a debased form of neurospasta. Indeed, the translation of Putul Nautch is "dancing dolls," which makes one immediately think of such displays, and so it may be that, in earlier times, these puppets only performed dancing and acrobatic tricks, and not plays. Contractor provides a detailed description:

Putul Natch

Bengal is the only place in India that has rod puppets. They are known by the name of Putul Nautch or dancing dolls. They have an individuality of their own in the construction and manipulation. Yet in the sculpting, a primitive yet effective method is used, very similar to the rod and string puppets of the Puebla and Ocotlan Red Indian Tribes of U. S. A., who used corn husk and clay. Rice husk and clay is used for the Bengal Rod Puppets.

The Bengal puppets are about 1½ metres in height and are built over bamboos [i.e., long poles extending down] 2½ meters long. The body and limbs have a bamboo base, which was originally covered and plastered with hay and rice husk mixed with clay to give the required shape. The finishing was then done with a smooth coating of banana leaf. When dry they were finally painted in bright colours and then clothed. This very old method of construction can no longer be seen; instead, one comes across entirely wooden puppets on a bamboo prop. The body part is not of solid wood, but carved or scooped out from the back and hollowed. The arms of these puppets are manipulated by a common string for both arms [passing through the body] and rods projecting from the elbows, which act like a lever. They have no legs, so the lower portion of the body is always covered by the sari or dhoti that is draped around them. There is also some hip movement in these puppets produced by a straw loop just below the waist. This loop often gives incidental movement, but can otherwise be moved from under the covering garments.

In manipulating the Putul Nautch puppets, the puppeteers first tie the puppets [i.e., the bamboo pole] securely into their waist band in front, leaving their hands free to work the puppet's hands and heads [from below]. The head too is made mobile with strings [passing through the body], held [by the puppeteer] in a straw ring , which facilitates the hold for manipulation. Actually, there is not much movement in these puppets, but the puppeteers themselves jump and dance vigorously to produce the effect of movement. A Putul Nautch programme can be witnessed at fairs or festivals in villages and as they are no-tickets shows, like most of the Indian traditional puppet plays the puppeteers carry no regular stage. Usually they hire or get on loan a back-drop and a front curtain from the local theatre units. The front curtain is high enough to hide the manipulators and is fixed on bamboo poles, the backdrop is usually four metres in height, so it shows the puppets up clearly. However, on rare occasions, these puppet players have a box-like stage constructed from bamboos, with a painted cloth proscenium and a roof top of straw known as the Putul Ghar or House of Dolls.

The puppet troupes are found scattered over the villages. In winter season, the puppet troupes are away from home showing their art at numerous village fairs. Most of the puppeteers are farmers, having little or no land. There are families that have been engaged in it for four generations. Puppeteers are mostly Hindus with a sprinkling of Muslims. There is no strong religious bias or orthodoxy displayed by them. All the troupes shows extreme reverence to the puppets which are often kept in places, considered sacred. The level of education among puppeteers is generally low.

The rod puppet of Bengal is made of wood and clay. The body is painted on wood, but they give a clay-and-cloth layer on the face and paint on it. Drawings are strongly related to the style of pat painting, using primary colours. They use oil colours and varnish. Puppets have holes in both their hands to insert bow, arrow, etc., in the hole. For a single puppet-body there are several heads, so that replacing only the head and costumes can change the character of the puppet.

The head is mounted on a rod, inserted through the body. Usually puppets have no joint on their left hand, but the right arm has a joint at elbow. The dancer-puppet has joints at the wrists and waist as well. The Krishna puppet has only the right leg. The other puppets do not have legs at all. Each troupe marshals 20 to 25 puppet bodies and 2 to 3 times that number of heads. There are animal heads as well. Some puppeteers use animal masks, such as, monkey or lion.

The costumes, make-up and jewellery are imitative of Jatra. The puppets are kept in wooden boxes, with bodies kept in basket, with costumes and ornaments kept separately. Harmonium, clarinet, cornet, nagara, cymbal, flute, Kansi (brass plate struck by a wooden stick) and sometimes violin are used to the accompaniment of folk songs and tunes of popular Bengali modern songs.


Where did the idea of Animatronics originate from?

As the definition implies, animatronics is the combination of the ancient art of puppetry with modern electronic technology. Examples of elementary puppets have been found in early Greek, Hindu, and Egyptian cultures. The first puppets were marionettes. Later, the rod puppet was developed in Bengal. Hand puppets have been popular in Europe since the middle ages to depict folklore.

During the Renaissance, automata were created to amuse royalty. Automata are mechanisms which move under there own power to mimic living creatures. These early automata were created from wood using complicated systems of clockwork gears and cylinders.

With the American Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, came simple automata novelties for wealthy children. However, the form of puppets used in theatres had not changed significantly since their original invention.

The first use of modern animatronics were invented by Imagineer Lee Adams for the Enchanted Tiki Room at Walt Disney’s Disneyland. Here, birds were created to look as though they were singing. A tape was made of the singing and when it played it shook a metal rod which completed an electronic circuit which moved the bird’s mouth. These early animatronics were all digital systems (with only and “on” movement and an “off” movement). To improve the attraction for the World’s Fair, analog systems were created which, for example, allowed the narrator’s head to move from side to side, varying it’s position throughout the show. Walt Disney trademarked the term “audio-animatronics” as the name of this new technology and invested much of his time and capitol into further advances.

These advances include the creation of the Lincoln head exhibited in the 1964 World’s Fair. This head took about a year to build and could imitate blinking, winking, eyebrow movement, and most importantly, talking. The talking was achieved by attaching solenoids, wire coils which pushed forward rods (nicknamed “slugs” by Imagineers), to the roof of Lincoln’s mouth. When current was running, the rods pushed open his mouth. The head was controlled by the Moviola, a vertical movie-editing machine used to review film. Animatronics made by Disney are now controlled by an animation control console, which still programs movement one electronic “frame” at a time.

After the pivotal creation of Disney’s early animatronics, animatronics began being used more frequently in movies as well as in theme parks. During the creation of Star Wars, Yoda was one of the first animatronic figures made with technology that closely imitated skeletons. Bruce Sharman, the production supervisor for Star Wars, later became a producer for Jim Henson, which created many classic animatronic figures such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

As a professional puppeteer Dhan mia did quite well in running his family for more than half a century. Dhan mia had been very happy and contended performing with his puppets and entertaining his audience across the country. That's why we heard him say, “I love my puppets more than I love my children; I'm known because of them. My children also treat the puppets with affection for they know that it was the money these puppets brought home that helped them live, eat and settle in life.”

We asked him how that happened. Dhan mia's answer was simple, “While making bidi I would often sing.

I happened to have a good voice. The singers of the puppet groups, when they heard me sing, readily drew me in their circle.” Then with a laugh, “I used to make bidi. and see, I, a bidi labour, in my spare time started to sing at the puppet shows for a salary of eight anna (equivalent to 50 paisa now). Working for eight anna, I, in return came to learn the art of puppetry. The guru of the puppet theatre was Girish Acharya of Krishnanagar village under Nabinagar in Brahmanbaria. I learned from him.

But you should know, no body gave me any training or taught me anything personally. I learned only from observing. After watching and observing for some times I started making my own puppets and practising to perform with them. I was then fifteen to twenty years old . At twenty, I myself formed a party of my own. After forming the party, I started to give shows regularly for a fee of four paisa per person and this brought me about Taka sixty to seventy per month. From that I used to pay one Taka to the harmonium player, and one and a half Taka to the 'dhuli' (the drummer). I was happy with that. At the beginning, I used to do the stories of Rama and Ravana’s fights. I took these stories from Girish Acharya's shows.

Dhan mia was the second among the Muslim puppeteers in the Brahmanbaria area. Before him, Kalu mia, who was our years older than Dhan mia and came from the neighbouring village of Talshahar was the first Muslim in the area to take up puppetry as a profession. Both of them had the same guru, Girish Acharya. We wanted to know if there was any difference between the puppet shows of his guru Girish Acharya and that of Dhan mia. He said, “There has been a lot of difference, in fact, a huge difference. During their time they used to perform the stories of Radha-Krishna, the abduction of Sita, Rama-Lakshman, Joy Honuman etc from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But now, except the love stories of Radha-Krishna, we don't do the other stories anymore. Our stories are now based on events of our every day life as well as on our folk and fairy tales. We often tell the stories of farmers working in the fields, men fishing, or women husking paddy, young girls carrying empty pitchers to the river for water etc.” In a complaining voice he then adds, “There are now some new puppet groups who use live people in the name of puppets. My party never does that. I have never used girls for the dances. I've always performed with inanimate dolls and I still do that.

Puppetry has an art of its own. If you make a live person dance with a puppet then the art of puppet dance loses its distinctiveness, it gets spoiled. I will never do that.”

Sitting among the audience at a few of Dhan mia's shows, we noticed how wonderfully he gave his voice to the words and actions of the puppets on the stage. His 'Bairagi' and 'Vaishnabi' puppets come dancing to the stage and then start quarreling over the needs and wants in their daily lives. The 'bairagi' starts beating the 'vaishnabi', but when she falls down on the stage, it's the 'bairagi' who affectionately raises her and tends to her wounds fondly. Among some of the other characters in Dhan mia's puppet family are the princess, who dances and sings “I'm the princess of Rupnagar. I bring all the enchantment of my beauty', the beautiful dancers and singers Milan Devi and Parul Devi, and the the puppet character of Dhan mia, the violin player. As is the practice in a puppet show, Dhan mia, the puppeteer stood behind the curtain unseen and made the puppets move and dance by pulling rhythmically on the strings attached to the puppets. He used his own voice to imitate the tone of the different puppet characters, while at the same time he played on a bamboo flute from time to time. Now and then he we would wet the flute with water to make the sound of it reach the audience clearly.

Besides performing his puppet shows across the country, Dhan mia had presented his shows more than once on television, and in three films -Dui Rajkumar (Two Princes), Cholo Ghar Bandhi (Let's Make a Home) and Matir Putul (Clay Dolls). However, as a professional puppeteer, Dhan mia prefers to present his shows more in different village and city fairs as he feels that the true nature of a puppet show is appreciated more by the audience in such atmospheres. In his professional life he received the cooperation of many people all of whom he considered his near ones.

Dhan mia then recalled another incident when he faced a kind of social obstacle. "The moulvis (religious leaders) in Sunamganj once tried to stop my show. I then asked them, 'For what reasons do you want to stop my show?' They said, 'You can't sing or dance.' I then said to them, 'Come with me. Come and see my puppets.' When they found that there were no living beings, only inanimate dolls, they said, 'Well, this is all right. This you can show.'

Dhan mia emotionally sang out, 'I only dance the way you make me dance, how is the puppet to blame?' Then he added, "Kishorganj's Hamid bhai's song. I salute him a thousand times. You cannot see the one who makes the puppets dance, and he knew this. We are also like puppets. You are a puppet and I'm a puppet. Those artists … and the songs they wrote … ! The moulvies say that singing is forbidden! All one needed was to understand the deeper meanings behind the words.'

Dhan mia is no longer with us. But his Royal Bina Putul Nach is here. His next generation family members have taken up the steering for running the company. Our sincerest good wishes and blessings are with the heirs of Dhan mia. May God rest his soul in peace!(R. Hossain, July 2006).

Rod puppets troupes in Bengal are slowly facing extinction. Many of the puppeteers supplement their income with other forms of occupation, e.g., agriculture, weaving and fishing. The puppeteers are not willing to teach their art to their children for the fear that they would not be able to make a living out of it. Thus, this traditional art is moving towards oblivion. In Jharkhand, the tribal rod puppets have never been much in evidence and are seen only in remote areas during the fairs.

Old puppeteers are dying and younger members in the family to more lucrative professions. Also, there are no craftsmen and puppeteers who can make puppets. Material is scarce and costly It is paradoxical that while it is during the last three decades or so the puppet traditions all over the country have been discovered, national and regional festivals organized, monographs and books published with the central and state Academies supporting their revival; it is also during this period that the tradition has declined and many of them are on the point of extinction.

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