The Call of the Puppets: Barbaria and Muragachha

It was not a romantic hill station or an exotic resort but Bengal’s rich puppetry history that enticed us to drive 110 km from Kolkata to two nondescript villages called Barbaria and Muragachha nestled deep inside Nadia district. They may be mere dots on the map, but these two villages are home to almost all the remaining puppeteers of West Bengal and well worth the journey.

The route to Barbaria and Muragachha villages in Nadia passes through Ranaghat– Dhantola and Panikhali.
We started from Ultadanga traffic island in Kolkata at around 9.30 am and drove straight through VIP Road towards NSC Bose International Airport. At the junction of Jessore Road/NH-12 (NH-34) we turned right and continued north towards Barasat. From Dakbungalow Crossing at Barasat we took the left fork and passed through Amdanga, Barajaguli and Chakdaha to reach Ranaghat via NH-12 (NH-34). From the Begopara Junction on NH-12 (NH-34) we took the right into interior roads, leaving the highway. We then proceeded through Cooper’s Camp – Dhantola Bazar and Panikhali Bazar to reach Barbaria followed by Muragachha villages – a very rare pocket in India for the very few surviving puppeteering groups.

The puppeteers mainly migrated from Bangladesh to Nadia during 1950 – 51. There are presently about seven to eight renowned puppeteer groups in Barbaria and twelve in Muragachha. Most of the puppeteers trace their roots to Khulna and Barishal districts of Bangladesh. The then-famous puppeteers, namely Jiten Haldar, Jiten Mandal, Neelkanta Chakraborty and Atul Matabbar (a dhol player) were pioneers who established their dominance in this area of West Bengal. Today, the puppeteers are a well-established colony in each of these villages in Nadia. Other than West Bengal, only Rajasthan still has a few puppeteering groups.

The Making
“Making the busts of string puppets is a laborious process. Stems of sholapith or sponge-wood (a mouldable, milky white spongy plant matter) obtained from plants found in the wetlands, are cut and stuck to one another using a glue made from wheat flour. They are then tied to form a bundle and dried in the sun to take the form of a thick cylinder. The artist skillfully converts these cylindrical structures into busts of beautiful dolls or puppets, which are then layered with clay and glazed with colour to obtain the desired skin tones. It is the masterstroke of the artists that breathes life into each of these dolls,” explained Ranjan Roy, a veteran puppeteer from Muraghachha.

Manipulating a Puppet
Designing and tailoring the costumes is one of the most difficult tasks. It is only after the costumes are fitted that the hands and the head are fixed to the body of the puppets with the help of black strings. String puppets do not have legs and are adorned with long flowing costumes to cover this aspect.

We found it interesting that a typical “character” puppet is manipulated with four strings while a “dancer” puppet with more movements, with ten. Of these ten strings, two are fixed on each hand for hand movements, two on the waist for jerky waist movements, two on the head for balancing, two on the knee for lifting the skirt while dancing and two on each elbow for elbow movements. A chhat or a cane stick is fastened on top to turn the dancer doll round and round. The total height of the body of a puppet is 2.5 feet while that including the dress is 3-3.5 feet.

The Art of Puppetry
Puppetry as an art-form of Bengal dates from antiquity and forms one of the most popular entertainments among the traditional forms. The folk puppetry of West Bengal is known as putul nach (putul – doll/puppet, nach – dance). The various forms of puppetry found in West Bengal are:
Beni Putul (glove puppets)
Dang Putul (rod puppets)
Tar / Shuto Putul (string puppets).
It is believed that both rod and glove puppets are indigenous to Bengal while string puppets are an import, possibly from Rajasthan.

Puppet Shows
A puppet show typically involves ten to fifteen members. Two are responsible for controlling the puppets while one is in the supporting role. There is one voiceover artist who lends his voice for all the characters in the play, be it male, female, child or even various animals and birds! It is with good reason that he is called the Master.

The Master is the most important member in the puppet show, having licence to work for several owners simultaneously and quote any price he likes, depending on his demand in the market. In other words, in the world of puppet shows, if a Master is highly skilful, his job is highly secure.

Another significant aspect of a puppet show is the music. A band of musicians includes a singer who plays the harmonium, a flautist, a tabla player, a keyboard player and a percussionist. Other members include light men who make the show attractive, gatekeepers who handle the tickets and act as a security guard.

String puppet shows are conducted generally in an open area and gates decorated with beautiful puppets are set up. A stage is built which is typically ten feet long, six feet wide and three feet high. Ideally the three sides of the stage are covered with decorative curtains. The lightweight puppets are hung by strings whose free ends are held by the puppeteers operating from behind a curtain.

The puppet shows are conducted with clockwork precision in sets, lights, costumes, script, voiceover and music. The seating arrangement is for an audience 1000 – 2000 strong!

Shows of shorter duration of 15-20 minutes have also evolved these days, with lighter arrangements and fees to convey social messages.

The themes of the operatic puppet shows are mostly myths and legends and each show is for one and half to two hours. The most popular plays are Sati Behula, Bhakta Prahlad, Raja Harishchandra, Lab-Kush, Nimai Sanyasi, Roopaban Kanya, Laila-Majnu, Phoolan Devi, Nati Binodini and so on. It is the dexterity and musicality of the lone performer that holds the audience enthralled.

“Before television, there was a huge rush every weekend for our shows and we would sell nothing less than 1500 – 2000 tickets per show,” recalls a nostalgic Kanai Haldar, a second-generation puppeteer. “Post-80’s, the audience started thinning and then, ever since society was hit by the epidemic of smart phones, the number fell significantly!”adds a frustrated Dilip Roy.

The Puppeteers of Barbaria Colony
A small village in the midst of nature, Barbaria colony is home to eight renowned puppeteers. As we drove through the village, we were overwhelmed with the neat and clean roads and houses. Kanai Haldar’s house had all the puppeteers awaiting us. The ladies of the house were extremely hospitable. We spoke to all the puppeteers trying to understand their means of livelihood.

According to Sachin Biswas, “The traditional puppeteers of this village are generally farmers who grow seasonal vegetables and flowers, while some do jute cultivation.”

Neelkamal Majumdar and Narayan Rai sounded quite positive though. “Looks like people are once again finding it interesting to get back to their roots and watch a live puppet show rather than entertain themselves virtually. This is evident from the growing number of calls we are getting these days from various places.”

Our drive to Barbaria colony was made eventful when we were able to witness an impromptu performance by Swapan Mandal whose puppets danced to the magical voice of Bijay Krishna. The most astounding part was the dance of Radha and the Jogi, wherein Radha was hell bent in going to the pond to fill water and the Jogi went on persuading her not to go. The dexterity of the artist coupled with the raga-based song of the Master and the musicians accompanying him was nothing short of magical.

So impressive was the performance that we decided to collect the contact details and share it with our readers. These puppeteers are available for call shows so please reach out to them if you want them to perform for children at a location convenient to you.

By the time we left Barbaria colony, it was late afternoon and we were famished. Ranjan Roy read our minds and invited us to his house at Muragachha.

The Puppeteers of Muragachha Colony
Amidst paddy fields, huts and ponds, Muragachha is like any other village in Bengal, except for the the folk art form of puppetry which sets it apart. As we entered Muragachha through the narrow, laterite pathway, we could see the busts of puppets kept outside the houses, in the verandas and courtyards.

At Ranjan Roy’s house we were greeted by an excited group of twelve puppeteers with whom we had an open and frank discussion. Roy then led us to an open area of the village where he had set up his stage.

We were witness to Bengal’s indigenous puppet show in one of its places of birth. It was once-in-a lifetime experience watching the play of Sabitri-Satyaban, conducted by Sree Ma Putul Natya Samaj of Ranjan Roy, one of the best groups of Muragachha. The script, light, music and dance of the puppets left us dumbstruck .

The Muragachha puppeteers are putting up a brave front, with Ranjan Roy carrying the torch on behalf of all the puppeteers of both the villages. “Puppeteers have succumbed to economic pressures and become non-committal towards their profession. They have neither the time nor the inclination to develop new content or improvise on their existing ones. On the contrary, a diminishing number of calls and mounting losses have made them severely competitive and instead of operating as a team, internal politics is damaging their growth,” laments a very disappointed Ranjan Roy.

We collected their contact details, as before and decided to share with our readers.

Future of Puppetry
The ever-changing taste of the audience and technological advancements have adversely affected the puppetry industry. “Lack of sensible and interesting content is an important factor for puppetry’s fast losing ground. Hence, I have begun writing my own scripts, which are far more popular among the audience today than the age-old traditional legends,” asserts Ranjan Roy. Today, though the demand curve of puppetry is slowly rising, it is not a sustainable business model as the running costs and overheads surpass the income potential.

Another big challenge that these puppeteers are facing today is that, their art being of an itinerant nature, they have to carry the objects of their craft  and their props with them, packed into boxes or folded and rolled into a cloth bag. The makeshift stage, which is a prerequisite of a string puppeteer, also has to be made by the puppeteers themselves. So every time they get a call, they have to travel not only with their entire team but also their bags and baggage, for just one show, which is quite challenging.

Fortunately, Banglanatokdotcom (an NGO) has undertaken active initiative in reviving many art forms all over Bengal and has played a vital role here too. They are training the puppeteers to create contemporary scripts and develop more relevant stagecraft, to woo a larger urban audience. This initiative has enabled the puppeteers to discover the cultural dimensions of entertainment and also helped them realise how puppetry can be a tool to disseminate cultural knowledge. The puppeteers are thus conducting regular shows on social issues such as ‘Kanyashree’, ‘Naripachar’, ‘Balyabibaha’, ‘Paribeshdooshan’, etc.

Each of these puppeteers is now being registered under the state government. Sixty from Muragachha and twenty from Barbaria have already received their registration cards, thirty remain. All these puppeteers have started to receive a monthly stipend of `1000 from the state government. It has also promised to arrange for at least four programmes for each puppeteer per month, which is yet to take shape.

With the support of West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (WBKVIB) and Rural Craft Cultural Hub – an initiative of the West Bengal Government’s Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Textiles (MSME&T) – in association with UNESCO, the “Putul Nach Mela” (puppet festival) was held for the first time between 15th and 17th December, 2017, at Muragachha Primary School, to spread awareness about the shuto putul of Bengal.

Despite facing a lot of upheavals in the last few decades, things are looking up for this indigenous art form of Bengal giving the puppeteers hope to start afresh. Their soulful music and expertise in handling the puppets is impossible to overlook.

It was almost 9:30 pm by the time we touched Ultadanga as the Jessore Road stretch near the Airport was heavily congested due to the Puja rush. However, the visuals of the puppet show and the soulful music played on our minds throughout the journey.

Puppet groups of Barbaria colony:
Nataraj Puppet Dance:
9732971422, 8327591921
Shilpi Tirtha Putul Natya Samaj: 9932571615 / 9732702384
Nabadiganta Putul Natya Samaj: 9775089491
Thakurdas Shabani Putul Nach: 9732721302
Dikbijoyee Putul Nach: 9735923908
Ma Shitala Putul Nach: 9733191937 / 8001961604
Sri Durga Putul Nach: 9733949638 / 8348135055

Puppet groups of Muragachha colony
Sree Ma Putul Natya Samaj:
9609095941 / 8388918367
Bairagi Putul Natya Sanstha: 9775587073 / 7872508444
Vivekananda Putul Nach: 8670801486 / 8317856048
Star Putul Nach: 9735233665 / 7029837954
New Shantimata Putul Nach: 9153362579 / 9641899273
Binapani Putul Nach: 9547325561
Bhuvaneshwari Putul Natya Samaj: 9593407643 / 9609355576
Ma Tara Putul Nach: 7679667955
New Lakshminarayan Putul Nach: 9749680869

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