Vol. 5 Num 64 Thu. July 29, 2004  

Mustafa Monwar: The modern day Geppetto
'Painters and artistes never retire from their work'

Creative' is an understatement for the artistically brilliant 66-year-old Mustafa Monwar. This dynamo of energy is an ace puppeteer, artist, director and producer of TV programmes and author of screenplays. Adapted from Tagore's works, he has recently done the screenplays of Dak Ghar and Strir Patro. A third adaptation, which he is now writing, is the screenplay of Shubha.

Among his other screen plays are Janoni Janmobhumi and Ajob Deshe (a series of puppet programmes). The latter was aired for three years and was based on the best children's stories of Bangladesh. The famous puppet characters Baghe and Meney staged their entry in this programme.

And that's only a small measure of his talent. Far from settling down to a peaceful retirement from government service in 1996, he says, he is busier than ever. In his words, 'Painters and artistes never retire from their work. I never get bored because I have so many creative outlets.'

Among his major contributions to culture is his revival of the dying art of puppetry. An educationist one said, 'The primary function of education among the very young is to expand the child's sense of wonder.' However, it is apparent that TV's largely mindless and violent entertainment has adversely captured young minds.

That is where Monwar steps in with his unique blending of television with puppetry. Among his successful TV puppet shows is Moner Katha which ran for 12 years. This work tells the story of a little girl called Parul and her seven brothers named Champa who were cursed and turned into flowers. Based on the popular tale Saat Bhai Champa, the character of Parul is to Bangladesh what Meena ( the central figure in Unicef''s promotional efforts) is to children in the developing world.

The most high profile of his new ventures is the Bangladeshi version of the US TV puppet show Sesame Street. This show, to be aired from 2005, brings together Nayantara Communication, a Bangladeshi production company with the US-based Sesame Street Workshop. Monwar gives his valuable inputs to the programme in his role as chief creative advisor to Nayantara.

{Sesame Street started operations in mid-1995 in the US. It was based on the puppetry of Jim Hanson, an American artist, designer of puppets and director of TV programmes for children. He worked with puppets and muppets ( in which performers are inside puppets) and the show was a hit in a scenario where TV had become a menace to creativity.}

The Bangladeshi version is based on the Hanson tradition. The difference is that three of Monnwar's puppets will feature in the Bangladeshi edition of Sesame Street. Describing his latest oeuvre, an enthusiastic Monwar says, 'This will be fun programme for children. It will teach rhymes, alphabets, numbers, the idea of opposites, among others. What's more, our puppets will be uniquely Bangladeshi in terms of language, culture and facial features.'

What is so remarkable about this soon to be introduced TV series is that Bangladesh is its first port of call in South Asia. Next in line is India which plans on a similar series.

His immense dedication and commitment to his art has earned him a high degree of recognition. 'I was awarded the highest prize of Ekushey Padak this year for my painting and for my contribution to culture. Then I got the Zainul Abedin award, for art and culture. Two months ago I got the Anando Bichitra award for the best direction and photography for Strir Patro,' says Monwar.

Along the course of his career, there are certain memories which have lost none of their poignancy. Growing up in a highly cultural family--his father was the renowned poet Gulam Mustafa and his brother Mustafa Aziz, an artist--the young boy Monwar spent a lot of time sketching and reading Walt Disney cartoons.

He had his first brush with authority at a young age. When he was a boy of 15 years, he was asked to draw cartoons for the Language Movement. The cartoon--a satire on the then rulers-- was slanted against the powers that be. The consequences were nasty--he had to spend one month in the Dhaka Central Jail. 'That was my only reward,' says Monwar sarcastically.

Currently Monwar has his hands full. His organisation, the Dhaka-based Educational Puppet Development Centre (EPDC), conducts seminars, training courses and workshops on voice training, puppet making and puppet manipulation. It also networks with touring groups that hold puppet shows around the country.

Despite Monwar's keen interest in art and craft, he is not altogether pleased with the present day cultural environment. Giving vent to his misgivings, he says,' I feel really frustrated. Our literature is so vast and our culture is very sophisticated but it is being ignored at the political level. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs is not very active. Further, the fundamentalists have influenced cultural growth. For instance, women's wrestling on TV was recently stopped by a fringe element.'

Mostafa's major contribution to culture is his revival of the dying art of puppetry