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Taarer Putul

There are many instances of the word ‘Sutradhar’ in the Shastras, Puranas, Vedas and the epics. Sutradhar refers to the narrator in a play but literally means the holder (dhar) of strings (sutra) in Sanskrit. This has led many scholars to opine that puppetry originated in India 4000 years ago. Other scholars are of the opinion that the art of puppetry flourished in medieval Bengal and was patronized by the aristocrats and members of the royal family in the Buddhist era. 

What we do know for a fact is that rod puppetry dates back to at least the 14th century – as indicated by manuscripts of Vaishnav plays of the period, written for puppet shows. The popularity of the form continued unabated into the twentieth century.  

Taarer Putul or Shutor Putul is the traditional string puppetry of Bengal. While rod puppetry is indigenous to Bengal, the origin of string puppets in Bengal is from the ‘Kathputli’, meaning wooden dolls, of  Rajashthan. Apparently, about a hundred years ago, a group of puppeteers from Rajasthan had come to perform at a local fair in Khejurtala village in undivided Bengal’s Barishal district (now in Bangladesh). Inspired by the performance, the locals desired to emulate the form.





There are many instances of the word ‘Sutradhar’ in the Shastras, Puranas, Vedas and the epics. Sutradhar refers to the narrator in a play but literally means the holder (dhar) of strings (sutra) in Sanskrit. This has led many scholars to opine that puppetry originated in India 4000 years ago. Other scholars are of the opinion that the art of puppetry flourished in medieval Bengal and was patronized by the aristocrats and members of the royal family in the Buddhist era. 

What we do know for a fact is that rod puppetry dates back to at least the 14th century – as indicated by manuscripts of Vaishnav plays of the period, written for puppet shows. The popularity of the form continued unabated into the twentieth century.  

Taarer Putul or Shutor Putul is the traditional string puppetry of Bengal. While rod puppetry is indigenous to Bengal, the origin of string puppets in Bengal is from the ‘Kathputli’, meaning wooden dolls, of  Rajasthan. Apparently, about a hundred years ago, a group of puppeteers from Rajasthan had come to perform at a local fair in Khejurtala village in undivided Bengal’s Barishal district (now in Bangladesh). Inspired by the performance, the locals desired to emulate the form.

With the help of Kalipada Malakar, a sponge-wood artist from Khulna district’s Kalshira village, several puppets were made; and thus was formed the first string puppetry group of Bengal comprising 11 artists. Assisted by local patuas (painters) and potters (the faces were coated with clay to give it a finished look), this import from Rajasthan soon became a local form of entertainment in Bengal. The performance was originally called Putla baaji and the puppets Ketu putul; while the themes were invariably taken from the Mahabharat and the Puranas. The popularity of Taarer Putul spread to neighbouring districts of the then East Bengal, like Brahminberia, Khulna, Kushtia, Jessore, Rongpur and Faridpur. 

String puppets are made of organic matter. The head, body, and hands are made of shola-pith or sponge-wood, a plant that grows wild in the wetlands. The size of the puppets is around 18 to 20 inches, though once fully costumed, they stand at 28 to 32 inches. The string puppets of Bengal are bigger in size and have more strings attached to them than the Rajasthani ‘Kathputlis’. They have six strings at least - two for the hands, two for the head and two for the front and back of the torso.  Unless specifically required for a character, puppets do not have legs, the absence of which is hidden by the clothes. 

The early string puppeteers of East Bengal were mainly Hindus. After the partition of 1947, many of these folk artists relocated to West Bengal due to political reasons. It was thus that string puppetry became a part of West Bengal`s folk culture. The artists who came over to West Bengal settled in Nadia district’s Bagula and Muragachha Colony. Settled in their new homes, the immigrant puppeteers formed the Bharatmata Putul Nach Party, with Indrabhushan Chakraborty, a resident of Guptipara, assisting them in their endeavour. 

The first artist to make Bagula’s puppets was Kenaram Kabiraj. When these puppets no longer served their purpose, a sponge-wood toy maker was brought in to make new puppets. Eventually the National Award winner Aditya Malakar, a famous sponge-wood artist, was also involved in this work.

The popularity of this new form soon began to spread to other parts of the state–such as Cooch Behar, Malda, Jalpaiguri, Murshidabad, Hooghly, Bardhaman, Birbhum, Medinipur, 24 Parganas. What started as a hobby gradually became for many, a source of livelihood. In the 1970s there were about a hundred puppetry groups around Bagula. The coming together of so many of these groups in a single area was unprecedented, the renowned social reformer and folklorist Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, is known to have remarked. 

Initially the puppeteers would perform in courtyards of households. Later, as their skills developed, they began to perform professionally at various venues, pitching their tents and selling tickets.  Modern techniques were later introduced and additional features like patachitras in the background incorporated. 

Much like the set up for rod puppet theatre, a troupe has six to twelve members, owned by an individual or jointly by a group. The master of ceremonies is the Sur Master who memorizes the entire repertoire and sings and speaks in the tone that the character demands. There is a stage and a variety of curtains to provide backdrops to match the scene. The instrumentalists of the harmonium, tabla, flute, cymbals and violin  sit at the right side of the stage. Some travelling troupes have replaced the musicians with tape recorded dialogue and music. 

The themes, for the last several decades, are mainly inspired by or simply lifted from popular Bengali jatra or even popular films, with the lyrics adapted as necessary. The costumes too have been adopted from the jatra styles. 

Initially, women never participated in the performance though they may have had a part to play as the painters of the puppet`s faces - but this changed with time. 

The puppeteers of South 24 Parganas went on to experiment with other materials such as wood, probably influenced by the indigenous rod puppetry already well established in the region. Unlike the sholapith puppets of Nadia, their puppets have been developed to incorporate a variety of additional movements, including head and even eye movements. 

It has been reported that back in the seventies, each puppet group had about 30 to 35 artists. But the need to organize costumes, puppets, boxes, arrangements for songs together with permission from authorities to pitch their tents, rent for the truck and booking venues for 6 months of performance across the state was a costly affair. Due to repeated losses incurred, professional puppeteers began to be forced to look for other means to earn a living.  

Things have been rapidly declining for the last few decades or so. From about 50 groups who had held their own and fought against all odds in the 1990s, the number has dwindled to just two or three groups today.

The battle is nearly lost.