Puppet and Kantha Museum

The fantastic four of Ambedkar Museum – Ethnographic, Puppet, Kantha and Boat museums, in such an inconspicuous building at Kankurgachhi, not only takes you through a journey of a lost world, but is also a serious attempt in reviving some of the dying indigenous art-forms of Bengal such as Puppetry and Kantha work.

The antiquity of Bengal’s puppetry or putul naach dates back to the end of 14th century and was one of the primary forms of entertainment during the medieval times. This traditional art-form is an allusion to the great epics, mythological stories and folk ballads of Bengal. The traditional forms of puppets found in West Bengal are Rod (Dang) puppets, Glove (Beni or Bene) puppets and String (Taar or Shuto) puppets. Both rod and glove puppets are indigenous to Bengal while string puppet is an import and all of them are on display at the Puppet Museum.

Rod Puppet
These are the traditional puppets of Bengal. Carved out of wood, rod puppets emulate the traditional styles and costumes of Bengal. The rod puppets of Nadia district are particularly famous for their human-sized dolls which resemble the Bunraku puppets of Japan. The rod puppets are generally 3 – 4 feet in height and are dressed like the characters from a jatra. These puppets mostly have three joints; the head, supported by the main rod, is joined at the neck, while the hands, attached to rods, are joined at the shoulders.

The rod puppet manipulation technique is highly theatrical. A bamboo-hub is fastened to the waist of the puppeteers on which the rod of the puppet is placed. The puppeteers hide themselves behind a curtain and sing, dance and recite dialogues, captivating the audience. A small band of musicians with traditional instruments such as dholak, harmonium and kanshar-ghanta enhance the show. Through their live performance, the puppeteers try to create the semblance of a theatrical extravaganza.

Glove Puppet
These puppets are also known as sleeve, hand or palm puppets. The head is made of either paper mache or cloth or wood, with the hands emerging from just below the neck. The puppets are dressed in long flowing skirts in a way that they become the glove of the puppeteer. An able puppeteer with efficient hand movements injects life into them with efficient manipulation techniques. The well-synchronised delivery of the dialogues, the dance of the puppets, the songs and the beat of the dholak, create a dramatic atmosphere.

String Puppet
String puppets or marionettes are the most popular puppet-forms in the whole of India. Marionettes are carved from a single piece of wood having jointed limbs, which allow greater flexibility to be controlled by strings and therefore are the most articulate of puppets. The dolls are characterised by oval faces, large eyes and lips and no legs.

The themes for the puppet-shows are mostly stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Since the last few decades, the themes have been heavily influenced by the popular jatra or folk theatre of Bengal. Historical, social and even political themes are now being incorporated while popular tunes of modern Bengali songs are gradually replacing the traditional music.

Puppeteers these days are unable to keep up with the changing face of this art-form and are moving to other occupations.

The puppets exhibited in this Museum depict characters from society such as the Farmer, Dhaki, Kabigaan singer, Woodworker, Boatmaker, Village women (Banglar Badhu), Nachni Putul, Bhanr, Rupaban Kanya, Bonbibi, Dakkhinray, Asur, Rabon, Sailor, Chhou, Baul, Daak Horkora, Fisherman, Potter, Karmakar, Swarnakar, Tiger and Swan. The Museum preserves the legacy of the culture of puppetry of Bengal by highlighting the artistry and mastery of craftsmen who contributed to this art form.

The Kantha Museum was established in September 2015. The Museum houses a total of 14 exclusive Kanthas, some of which are 100–150 years old.

Although Kantha works are a spectacular display of the artistic talent of the ladies of the house, their chief motive has always been thrift and economic compulsion. The idea is to use embroidery as reinforcement to bind torn cloth and rags to make it durable and tear-proof for rough handling. This is achieved by sewing them together with close running or Kantha stitches and embroidering them. The sewing is done very skilfully to conceal the joints in such a manner as to be almost incapable of detection in a cursory glance. In Kantha having the most spectacular designs, the usage of the colours red, yellow and blue are predominant, with a sparing use of green. However, to emphasise the pictorial design of an elaborate character, the colour scheme is mainly restricted to a single colour code.

The earliest and the most basic stitches found in Kantha is the running stitch. The predominant form of this stitch is popularly known as the Phor or Kantha Stitch. The various other stitches used are – the weave running stitch, Kaitya or bending stitch, Chatai or pattern darning, Jessore stitch (a type of darning stitch), Lik phor or Anarasi or Gharhasia – Holbein stitch. The stitches used in modern-day Kantha are the arrowhead stitch and the Kashmiri stitch. Stitches such as herringbone stitch, satin stitch, back stitch and cross-stitch have also become popular.

Types of Kantha
The chief forms of Kantha made by the Bengali women are generally recognised as

  • Rumal (Handkerchief): This generally consists of a lotus in the centre around which a variety of plants and animals and other traditional motifs are embroidered, the whole being enclosed within a decorative square round the edges.
  • Arshilata (Cosmetic wrap): These are narrow embroidered wrappers with a drawstring to roll and store away a woman’s comb, mirror, eye kohl, vermilion, sandal paste, oil bottle, etc. They are rectangular in shape with a fairly wide border sewn around the four sides.

  • Ooar (Pillow cover): They are rectangular in shape with simple designs, either linear or consisting of a number of parallel longitudinal border patterns or abstract forms of tree and foliage.
  • Bostani (Books and valuables wrap): Generally square in shape, it has a wide border consisting of several rows of patterns while the centre consists of very elaborate workmanship with a lotus of concentric design. The patterns are common.

  • Nakshi Kantha (Quilts): A centuries-old Bengali art-form, these are used as winter wraps. Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Faridpur and Jessore districts of Bangladesh are the places most famous for this craft.
  • Sujni Kantha (Bedspread): These were meant for seating honoured guests in ceremonies such as weddings. These are colourfully and aesthetically embroidered and also used as bedcovers on formal occasions. These Kanthas give the artist full scope for the exercise of her genius for structural design as well as for creating an endless variety of lovely patterns in line and colour with her needle. An elaborate Sujni Kantha is in many cases the work of several generations of women in the same family.

The other types of Kantha are: Batua – a wallet for keeping money and betel leaves, Ghilaf – an envelope-shaped bag to cover the Quran, Jainamaz – mats for prayer, Galicha – floor spreads, Dhakni – cloths of various sizes used as multipurpose covers, Dasterkhan – a spread used while dining. Modern day Kanthas include wall-hangings, cushion covers, ladies’ purses, jewellery bags, dress-fronts, skirt-borders, shawls and sarees.

A remarkable feature of Kantha art is that the artist makes it a point of honour never to imitate a design from another Kantha but always to bring out original designs. The Kantha art represents the serene and joyous self-expression of a race of women whose watchwords are thrift, aesthetics and sound craftsmanship. In their creations, we find a combination of a refined sense of beauty and a scrupulous avoidance of luxury and over-refinement.

No.P-1/4, Scheme, VIP Road,    
7M, CIT Rd, BRS 10, Kankurgachi
Days open: Monday – Friday
Timing: 10:30 am – 5:00 pm
Parking: Inside the compound on special request
Entry: Free
Photography: Not allowed

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