Traditions are brewed in time. Timeless as they my seem, it is within the sand of time that some wane in popularity. But they forever make a mark in history, in our lives. This week Star Lifestyle looks into the near forgotten traiditions of folk plays, 'puthis'and puppetry. These call to us for a revival, lest they are lost forever within the fabric of the passing time.
into the world of puppets
A puppet is a figure or doll made to look like a person or an animal which is controlled by a master puppeteer. They are moved by hand, strings, wires, or rods and can be made from wood, cloth, paper pulp or leather.
The way puppetry combines acting and dancing is not just geared towards children, but meant to delight adults as well. Besides entertainment, puppetry serves as an applied art form which conveys meaningful messages.
The early puppet shows in Bangladesh dealt mostly with histories of great kings, princes and heroes and also political satires in rural areas. With the progress and development of civilisation, the mysticism connected with traditional puppetry slowly started to fade, and was replaced by a focus on entertainment.
The art and culture of puppetry exists in various forms in almost all areas of Bangladesh.
For many years, puppetry has been a popular part of folk culture. It is said that the tradition of rod puppets in Bengal goes back to the end of the fourteenth century with the emergence of 'jatra' (folk play). There are three forms of puppets in Bangladesh -- rod puppets, string puppets and glove puppets.
In Bangladesh, most puppeteers have no formal training, instead learning as apprentices of a puppeteer mentor.
Puppet shows have been dwindling in number in recent decades due to the influence of electronic entertainment like animated movies, video games, etc. Puppeteers now face a state of near extinction due to the lack of patronage.
The government should nurture puppetry and generate public interest. Usually puppeteers with a family tradition carry out this art. In most cases, puppeteers have to have another means of earning a living, as the income from this profession is very low. Some puppeteers also change their profession, as they rarely get the opportunity to perform at shows.
To promote this folk art, the Department of Theatre and Film, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, organised a Puppet Dance Festival in 2010, where ten puppet troupes from across the country participated.
Brahmanbaria is considered a hub of puppetry in Bangladesh. It is said that Bipin Majhi introduced puppet shows in this region and Dhan Miah of Brahmanbaria was the most popular puppet master of Bangladesh.
Mustafa Monwar is an innovative artist and organiser of modern puppetry. He thinks that puppets can play a role in education, particularly of young children. He adapts the ancient village tradition of delivering social messages through puppet shows.
The following is a short list of active puppet troupes of Bangladesh who still carry on the tradition of puppet shows.
Jhumur Bina Putul Nach
The director of the troupe is Md Siddique Miah, who established the troupe at Brahmanbaria before the Liberation War of 1971. He was the assistant of renowned puppeteer Dhon Miah. Besides the puppetry company, he also maintains a small business. There are 20 puppet 'stars' in his group, made from Indian cord and clay. Themes of social significance are predominant in his shows. Contact: 01715688506.
Tulai Putul Natyagosthi
This troupe is from Dinajpur. The former name of the troupe was 'The New China Putul Nach'. While travelling in India, the owner of the group Moni Dutta saw a puppet show and became interested. After returning home, he started a puppetry troupe.
He is also an accomplished singer but his financial stature is poor. He runs a tea stall, which is the primary source of his income.
Stories against corruption and comic skits are some of his well-liked acts. He thinks that interest from culturally conscious people of the society can help puppetry stay alive. Contact: 01716399699.
Hridoy Jhumur Jhumur Putul Nach
This Dhaka-based puppet group was established in 1975. The troupe consists of 30 puppets. Owner Ujir Ali took the responsibility of running the show from his father. He has a home in Nawabpur and cultivable lands in his village. His primary means of livelihood is making merry-go-rounds at local fairs. Ghost stories, boat races, snake charmers, Bhanumati's wedding; and stories of fishermen are some of his famous acts. Contact: 01711634519.
Royal Bina Putul Nach
One of the most noteworthy and long-established puppet troupes of the country is Royal Bina Putul Nach. Dhan Miah was the founder of the company. After the demise of the founder, ownership of the group passed to his son Md. Shamim Miah. This Brahmanbaria-based puppet theatre has 30 puppets and their significant shows include the horse race, boat race, crocodile, tiger, snake, violin player, etc.
Contact: 01719959035, 01716614710.
The Nizam Putul Nach
This troupe is from Shatkhira. Jarina Begum bought it about 35 years ago with her husband Wazed Ali Mondol. The former owner of this group was Nizam Uddin. Jarina is illiterate but as she was associated with puppet shows from her childhood, she had memorised most of the pala gan (folk renditions) and narratives of plays.
In spite of being a home-maker, she is a good singer and ably manages the group. Most of her family members are involved with the troupe, which has about 25 puppets. The significant acts are 'Shaat Bhai Champa', 'Rupbaner Pala', 'Monshar Pala', etc.
Each of the troupes have an orchestra that accompanies the singing and the dancing routines. Although their performances are now restricted to performances especially designed to depict rural culture, they were once regular routines at fairs and festivities. With patronage from the bourgeois of society, this long lost tradition can enjoy a most timely revival.
By Farizaa Sabreen
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Specials thanks to Shamim of Royal Bina Putul Nach, Bhramanbaria
The word 'jatra', directly translated, means 'going' or 'journey'. This is an apt description of the popular travelling folk theatre in Bangladesh. It is through this 'journey' that many religious values and principles were strongly communicated in the past. Today, however, this is not always the case in modern Jatra, with many changes having occurred, specifically in the writing of the plays.
Originally 'jatra' in Bangladesh embraced subjects such as mythological, and historical figures; nevertheless, modernisation has brought about an array of social themes more suited to the educated and enlightened public in present day society.
Jatras encompass a variety of skills such as music, singing and acting. Adding to the atmosphere of Jatra performances are loud thunderous music, dramatic props, harsh lighting and the ever-expected stylised delivery with exaggerated tones, gestures and orations.
All of this is typically set on a simple outdoor stage with the musicians and chorus standing off stage. Spectators attending folk theatre performances in Bangladesh enjoy an up-close-and-personal experience as they surround the stage on all sides.
Jatra is common to Bangladesh as well as the province of West Bengal in India. Many people believe that Jatra originally developed from the ceremonial functions that were performed before families or loved ones departed for a distant destination.
From a more religious perspective, it has also been assumed that the many processions dedicated to gods and goddesses, such as the festival of Rathayatra, may also have contributed greatly to the development of Jatra. Regardless, this historical performance can be traced back to mid sixteenth century.
Many changes have occurred since then. The greatest change took place after the First World War, which saw Jatras being strongly influenced by patriotic and nationalistic themes. Nevertheless, sentimental love and religious myths have continued to inspire the many Jatras that exist even today.
It was only in the late 1940's that female roles were introduced to what had always been an all male cast. Today Bangladesh's Jatra continues to play its role, expressing the local Bangladeshi culture and, as well as captivating the imaginations of public audiences.
By Naziba Basher