The systematic study of puppetry and puppets is a very recent phenomenon in India, although puppetry as a performing art has a rich history in the country. The earliest references to puppetry in India can be found in the Rig Veda, and then in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, where performers from the Plabak and Kuhak tribes are described as professional puppeteers (details in Das 2002). In scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita, the inscrutability of human fate being like that of a marionette is hinted at (Bhagavad Gita 18:61). In his Mahābhāṣya (‘Great Commentary’), Patanjali, while listing various audio-visual methods of teaching and learning, emphasizes puppetry (Das 2002). References to puppets and puppetry can be found in the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (Book 12, 286:4 in Sukthankar 1933). In addition, puppets have been used in metaphors across cultures around the globe. A good number of literatures around the world revolve around the central theme that human beings are puppets in the hands of whimsical, wanton and inscrutable gods/fate, hence the master puppeteer. The Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, King Lear by William Shakespeare, and J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea can be cited in this regard. So, what does this word ‘puppetry’ really mean? Why should we study this significant and ancient cultural and artistic tradition from India? What is the present status and condition of puppetry in India, and more specifically in Bengal? And what are the problems and prospects for puppetry in Bengal in this post-digital age? These are some of the serious questions that this paper has investigated and tried to answer.
Eminent scholars Sampa Ghosh and Utpal K. Banerjee have defined the term ‘puppetry’ in the preface of their book, Puppets in India and Abroad:
Puppetry is an extension of one’s self. It may be motivated by the need to explain, explore, embrace or critique the human condition. It is still one of the safest ways to act out, act up, entertain, educate, commiserate, wonder out loud, unburden oneself or release one’s feelings. In a nutshell, puppet theatre is a wonderful place to find peace of mind and spirit. (Ghosh and Banerjee 2014:vii, emphasis mine)
It is this ability to ‘entertain’ and ‘educate’ or ‘delight and instruct’ the rural masses (both children and adults) that makes this performing art popular even to this day. A careful study of the puppetry tradition in India reveals that there are primarily four types of puppets in India, depending upon the ways in which the puppets are manipulated: shadow puppet, string puppet, rod puppet, and glove puppet. Since I intend to discuss in this essay the Beni Putul or glove puppet tradition of Bengal, I shall focus on this tradition exclusively while occasional referencing other forms or types of puppetry (for the etymology of ‘Beni Putul’, see Ali and Ali 2015:92). Ghosh and Banerjee (2014) describe Beni Putul or glove puppetry as follows:
It is called Glove puppet when the puppeteer puts on the puppet-like glove and manipulates the head of the puppet with his index finger, controlling the arms with his thumb and middle fingers. The figure is seen from the waist upward, and there are normally no legs. But it tends to produce a lopsided effect, with one arm higher than the other. (Ghosh and Banerjee 2014:9)
In Bengal, the tradition of Beni Putul originated first in the Bagura and Rajsahi areas of pre-Partition Bengal (now Bangladesh). Rajasthani Kathputli troupes used to perform such puppet shows before the rural masses there. Later, poverty compelled the puppeteers to migrate to nearby areas like Ranaghat in Nadia, the Sundarban province, and the Contai and Tamluk areas in Purba Medinipur district.
A popular myth among the Beni puppeteers of Padmatamli village in Purba Medinipur district is that glove puppetry originated in the colonial regime as a tool for resistance against the colonial authority of British indigo planters (for further understanding, see Ali and Ali 2015). Whatever the causes may have been for the origin of glove puppetry in Bengal, it is evident that this tradition is now in severe endangerment. Earlier, Beni Putul performances were held in a few villages in Purba Medinipur and Paschim Medinipur. In places like Padmatamli in Bhupatinagar, Ikshu Patrika in Bhagwanpur, Basudebberia, Rasulpur, Brindaban Chak, and Gholabar in Khejuri, the tradition of glove puppetry was practised. But now, this tradition of glove puppetry can be witnessed only in Padmatamli village in Bhupatinagar.
Padmatamli, a village near Mugberia in Purba Medinipur district, is popularly known as ‘Bene Putuler Gram’ (‘the village of glove puppetry). Puppeteers such as Basanta Kumar Ghorai, Sarad Ghorai, Paresh Ghorai, Ramkrishna Ghorai, Arobinda Ghorai, Srimanta Ghorai, Parasurum Ghorai, Amal Ghorai, Suchitra Ghorai, Pratik Ghorai, and others still practise this art. These artists, as their surnames suggest, belong to the Hari caste, a Dalit caste who live in the Harijan Palli. Once, there had been 70–80 families engaged in this performing art, but now this has decreased to less than ten. Several factors are responsible for this gradual shrinking. One major reason is poverty. As they belong to a lower caste, they do not own any land. At one point, a large number of artists were either palanquin bearers or simply nomads. They earned their livelihood by begging for alms while performing puppetry shows from door to door. They used to live from hand to mouth. The stigma of being a ‘beggar’ and the insults levied on them by the upper castes for engaging in such an ‘ignoble profession’ (puppetry) forced them to switch rapidly to other professions like carpentry, grocery vending, daily labour, etc. The master puppeteer of the village, Mr Basanta Kumar Ghorai, runs a small grocery shop by the main road. Chinmoy Das describes their predicament in his thought-provoking essay, ‘Puppetry’:
The present situation of the puppeteers is very pathetic. Originally they belonged to the scheduled caste and the profession of their forefathers was that of a palanquin bearer. Now the performance of glove puppetry has descended to the level of begging. There is no social respect for these artists. Electronic media and other forms of popular entertainment are attracting the masses and as a result the puppeteers and their puppetry are in severe endangerment. Large numbers of performers have switched over to some other professions like rickshaw driving, band-party, land-workers and small businesses. Very few have land, either for farming or for dwelling. It’s a matter of surprise that amidst all these crises, they are still carrying on their rich artistic and cultural heritage! (Das 2002:337, my translation)
So, the obvious question is how they will continue their rich artistic and cultural heritage, and this question haunts both the puppeteers and the villagers of Padmatamli.
I have so far discussed the context and have provided a general overview of Beni Putul in Bengal. Now, I shall concentrate on thematic aspects of the performing art and the theatrical issues associated with it. The glove puppetry tradition in India is marginalized in comparison to other forms of puppetry. While in the southern states of India (Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) the Chhaya Putul or shadow puppetry tradition predominates, in north India (chiefly in Rajasthan), and in some eastern parts of India (like Odisha), the tradition of Kathputli (string puppets or marionettes) prevails. Such puppets (Kathputli) are made of wood and are manipulated by means of strings fastened to the joints of the puppet. Hence, the Sanskrit root word, ‘sutradhar’ (one who holds the string of the performance), as seen in Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra, connotes this form of puppet. Unlike Beni Putul, such puppet performances (whether shadow, string or rod puppets) necessarily require a stage. In contrast, Beni Putul can be performed anywhere: in fields, in marketplaces, or on the road or street outside the puja pandal. Keeping in mind the flexibility of its form it can be considered as ‘free theatre’ which is outside the rigidity of theatrical conventions.
In puppet festivals and workshops organized by institutions like Sangeet Natak Akademi and others the prime focus is on shadow, string and rod forms of puppetry, and the tradition of Beni Putul or glove puppetry has manifestly received less importance, in terms of the number of glove puppet troupes invited and the time allocated for performance. Is not Beni Putul a part of folk theatre? What problems arise if it is staged on a proscenium stage or other kind of stage? What are the dramatic aspects that make Beni Putul an integral part of Indian folk theatre? What are the theatrical issues related to this performance? There are more and more questions left unanswered. I try to focus on these below.
In terms of theme, the glove puppetry tradition of Bengal can be divided into two categories. The predominant tradition is of traditional, mythological and religious stories, such as Krishna Anurage (‘In Devotion to/In Love with Krishna’), Radhar Manbhanjana (‘Krishna’s Breaking of Radha’s False Show of Anger’) Vrindavan Bilasini (‘The Enamoured Sojourner of Vrindavan’), Radha-Krishna Leela (‘The Dalliance of Radha and Krishna’), Krishner Noukabilas (‘The Boating Episode of Krishna’) Ganga-Durgar Jhagra (‘The Quarrel between Ganga and Durga’), Behula Bhasan or Manasa Mangal (‘Benediction of Manasa’), Shiva and Durga, Durgar Shakha Parayan (‘Durga’s Wearing of Shiva’s Conch Bangle’), Sita Haran (‘Abduction of Sita’), Kunti and Gandhari and some palligeeti (rustic songs). The second category of Beni Putul performance deals with contemporary issues and aims to raise social awareness and impart mass education. Examples of are Sampradayikata Birodhi Gaan (‘Song against Communalism’), Pulse Polio, Sauchagar (‘Sanitation’), Chaser Gaan (‘Song about Cultivation’), Shishu Bikash (‘Child Development’), Brikhoropon (‘Afforestation’), Arsenic er Prabhab (‘Arsenic Effect’), Jal Dushan (‘Water Pollution’), Saap Kamor er Kusanskar (‘Against the Superstitions about Snakebite), and others.
The experience of watching a modern Bengali theatre on a proscenium is different from watching a rural puppet show where there is hardly any stage. A viewer who has witnessed only the former kind of theatre will find it difficult to relate to the dramatic or theatrical elements of Beni puppet performances. Here, the austere division of the action into acts and scenes is not seen. Rather, these puppet shows (like other folk performances of Bengal like Pata Pala, Churi-Churiyani Pala, Bolan and others) usually begin with a ritual invocation (known as bandana) to different Hindu deities like Saraswati, Krishna or Vishnu. This conventional bandana is rarely seen these days. Even the master puppeteer, Mr Basanta Kumar Ghorai, is not sure about this invocation that might once have been integral to the Beni puppet performance.
The chief element of this folk performing art is undoubtedly ‘action’, i.e., songs, dances, music, occasional dialogues, chants, and other musical instruments. The folk brawl between Radha and Krishna in Radhar Manbhanjana, or the quarrel between Ganga and Durga over Shiva in Ganga-Durgar Jhagra, or the debate between the two mythological birds, Suka (the male parrot) and Sari (the female bird), where one takes Krishna’s side and the other glorifies Radha, is the subject matter of this performing art. The puppeteers create the theatrical conflict by having the puppet on one hand represent Krishna, Shiva, Suka or Durga, and the puppet on the other hand represent Radha, Durga, Sari or Ganga. And this spectacular performance that takes the form of a debate over everyday or domestic issues has a great effect upon the audience, much like Punch and Judy shows in the West.
But now, the folk tradition of glove puppetry is in severe crisis. The younger generation (both artists and the audience) is not very interested in these puppet shows. Behind these drastic changes lie many factors. In this age of post-globalization, other forms of entertainment like cinema, video games, new media, and internet videos are gradually eating into the viewership of this rich artistic and cultural tradition. Insufficient financial support, political sycophancy, inadequate government assistance and lack of awareness are the other major factors. The sparsity of able and talented performers, directors, and script writers is another major reason. In the words of Suresh Awasthi:
It is paradoxical that while it is during the last three decades or so that the puppet traditions all over the country have been discovered, national and regional festivals organized, monographs and books published with the central and state Akademies supporting their revival; it is also during this period that the tradition has declined and many of them are on the point of extinction … Old puppeteers are dying and younger members of the family are taking to more lucrative professions. (Awasthi 2001:51)
The present state of puppetry in Padmatamli is suggestive of this. In West Bengal, where string and rod puppet theatrical groups like Sree Durga Putul Theatre (rod puppetry), Jogmaya Putul Theatre (rod puppetry), Maa Manasa Putul Theatre (string puppetry), and Sonamoni Putul Theatre (string puppetry) still retain their popularity, the Beni Putul Theatre (of Padmatamli village) is steadily losing its audience and may be shut down. Mr Das’s observation in this regard is noteworthy:
The glorious days of Beni Putul performance are over. Only a fragment of the traditional puppet performance remains. As one puppeteer can manipulate only two puppets at one time, very few characters can be staged. That’s why only fragments of existing folk puppetry are performed like the short conversation between Sachi and Nimai in Nimai Sanyashi, Mathur, Kalanka Bhanjan, Srimanta Masan, Kamale Kamini etc. It is very spectacular to watch Tarja Gaan on the stage. Tarja palas like Ganga-Durga, Shiva-Durga, Bhima-Bagdani, Kunti-Gandhari attract innumerable viewers. In some traditional rustic rhapsodies the socio-economic standing of the puppeteers can be traced (Das 2002:339, translation mine).
The type of Beni Putul performance that is very popular these days is that dealing with contemporary issues, primarily relating to education, health and hygiene. Puppetry of this kind helps spread social awareness and impart mass education in villages about topics such as pulse polio, sanitation, AIDS, tuberculosis, whooping cough, child marriage, literacy, afforestation, the dangers of arsenic, communalism, health and environment pollution. Governments sponsor Beni Putul puppetry with the aim of extending health and education schemes. Instances are seen in performances like Sauchagar Nirman (‘Build a Toilet’), where villagers are instructed about the health problems caused by open defecation in an ‘entertaining’ way. Here, dramatic elements like dialogue, conflict, songs, music and puppetry are used to portray a marriage ceremony between two rustic characters—Madan and Puti—to impart awareness about sanitation.
Another performance that deserves mention in this context is Arsenic er Prabhab (‘Against Arsenic’), performed by Ramkrishna Dolai. In this puppet show, the importance of drinking purified, arsenic-free water is conveyed. Information related to the causes and effects of arsenic contamination and the ways to prevent it are shown in an amusing way. Another song, Sampradayikata Birodhi Gaan (‘Song against Communalism’), which Mr Basanta Kumar Ghorai composed in 1992, conveys the message of peace, harmony and fraternity across caste, sect and religion. The song goes:
Sob jati to manush re bhai vinno kono kichui nai
Rokto-mangso die gora, matir toiri putul noi.
Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Jainya jatek manush bhai,
Sobar gaye lal rokto kalo karur noi.
All men are equal irrespective of any caste.
There is no difference as such.
No one is a puppet made out of clay, all are human beings made of flesh and blood.
It does not matter whether one is Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Jain
Because the same red blood flows in the veins of everyone.
These types of puppetry, as mentioned earlier, both teach and delight the rural masses—children and adults alike. There are a large number of schools abroad (primarily in the US, China, Japan, and Austria) that have adopted puppetry as a medium to impart education and have included puppetry in their school curriculum and syllabi. Scholars and researchers of cognitive child psychology have found that, ‘Puppetry creates a pleasant atmosphere in which learning may be carried on. It is not only a source of amusement, but when used in the classroom it may become a very stimulating force’ (Clark 1950:88). In schools, children tend to be fascinated and delighted when they can learn by doing things practically, and a medium like puppetry enhances their motivation to participate in the learning process. To emphasize the powerful effect of puppetry in children’s learning process, Ghosh and Banerjee observe:
The main purpose of the puppet is to offer fun and entertainment to all people, regardless of age. They are simultaneously a perfect means of children’s education. Their plainness and warmth touch children’s hearts, influence them emotionally and spiritually, captivate and capture them. Children feel close to puppets, love them, because they’re small and simple, because they have a special and unfailing energy, and live in an impressive and attractive world, which excites their interest. Today, puppets play a less significant religious role and are mainly a medium of children’s education and entertainment (Ghosh and Banerjee 2014:200).
An example of this kind of glove puppet performance is worth mentioning here. Younger puppeteers like Pratik and Arup Ghorai enjoy presenting Shishu Bikash (‘Child Development’), which opens with ‘Ore chol sobai/mile mise pathsala te jai’, which means ‘Let’s go friends! Let’s all go to school.’ The need to learn subjects like history, geography, literature, science, mathematics and physical education (to encourage health and hygiene) is presented in this show. This performance is popular not only among children, but adults too.
Beni Putul, like other folk performances in Bengal, is used as part of government schemes or campaigns to eradicate illiteracy or superstition. It is this utilitarian function of Beni puppetry that can withstand the transformation of cultural taste. To quote Ghosh and Banerjee once again:
The puppet performances have been an important traditional medium and the puppeteer a most effective communicator both of traditional lore and of the contemporary scenario. Some of the communicative means employed in puppet performances are icons, story, speech and music. It is because of this communicative power that puppets have not only survived the intrusion of the mass media in their world, but have meaningfully supplemented its message and given it a more personalized character. Widespread and effective use of puppetry by the government publicity units has amply proved this. (Ghosh and Banerjee 2014:203, emphasis mine)
So, it is this ‘communicative power’ of Beni Putul to impart education, coupled with the pleasurable entertainment it provides, that helps this form survive ‘the intrusion of the mass media in the world’.
The shift or change from the original or traditional form of Beni Putul to this new form of puppetry—a medium or tool for promoting or circulating information on government policies and schemes—is not always a fruitful one. If such commercialisation takes place, what will happen to conventional performances of this form of puppetry that dealt with religious or mythological stories? Inge C. Orr observes:
Signs of change and decline of the puppet theatre as a folk art tradition are present everywhere as a result of Western education and modern forms of entertainment, principally movies and television, and also in the wake of communist or governmental manipulation. As the traditional social functions of Asian puppetry decline, its use for commercial, political and nationalistic purposes is on the rise. (Orr 1974:82)
But it is also evident that amidst all these crises in this age of digitisation, interest in these endangered folk art forms is sustained through means such as documenting, digital archiving, collecting, transcribing, and translating these oral, visual, and other traditional forms of cultural texts. Worldwide tours of the puppeteers in some cases and renewed global interest (chiefly on the part of academic bodies and governments) have helped safeguard and sustain such endangered folk art forms. The UGC and other recognized bodies are offering large grants for the documentation of such endangered folk art forms.
But the outcome or end result is not always fruitful, because of the lack of proper planning or assistance. Dr Orr, who has extensively studied the different puppet traditions of Asia, puts forward his view:
Well-intentioned, but ill-conceived governmental rehabilitation projects may do more harm than good if they lack a profound understanding of the puppet theatre as a folk tradition: for example, the good-hearted, though naïve attempt of a UNESCO expert, in the service of the government of India, to change or remove traditional elements from the Rajasthani puppet theatre (Orr 1974:78–79).
What can the future of Beni Putul or glove puppetry in Bengal possibly be? Will the traditional folk puppet performances that narrate mythological and religious scenes survive? How can the glove puppetry of Bengal withstand the onslaught of Bollywood, and other forms of popular entertainment? Nowadays, Beni Putul artists do not limit themselves to tarja gaan or dramatic/debate songs. Puppeteers like Ramapada Ghorai, Vishnupada Ghorai and Basanta Kumar Ghorai of Beni Puppet Theatre of Padmatamli village present small scenes based on popular episodes from Mitralava or Hitopodesh or from other well-known stories. Some notable examples of this kind of drama are Budhi Boro na Sakti Boro (‘Which is Mightier: Intellect or Strength?’) and Oti Chalaker Golay Dori (‘Too Much Cunning Overreaches Itself’).
But the problem is that, rather than presenting the drama in the unique glove puppet format, the Beni Putul artists depend more on the rod puppet style. Like the rod or stand puppet artists, the glove puppeteers manipulate the glove puppets from behind a curtain, so that the performers are not visible at all. Is there an alternative where the Beni puppeteers can perform in some other distinctive way? Would it be possible to perform such dramas in a box-like stage (like the Punch and Judy Show)? Remaining invisible within the box, the puppeteers can manipulate the puppets to show characters such as Meena, the woodcutter, lion, monkey, goat and others as seen in Oti Chalaker Golay Dori. These may be some alternatives for Beni Puppet Theatre in the future.
The two plays that have been mentioned above largely deal with traditional stories and themes. But the Beni puppet shows now being performed largely deal with contemporary issues like pulse polio, the dangers of arsenic, or the problem of dowry. Stories such as the folk brawl between Radha and Krishna, or the lion and the monkey have now transformed into a homely quarrel between Prasenjit and Rituparna, or Madan and Puti over present-day problems like sanitation or pulse polio. This thematic alteration hints at the changing nature of the socio-cultural milieu, where audiences expect a different, ‘modern’ kind of entertainment. In this era of post-globalization, not only Beni Putul, but other folk art forms in Bengal are facing similar problems. Depending upon the audiences’ changing tastes and demands, these forms are embracing new themes, media, and ways of entertainment. And as a result, the traditional aspects of such folk art forms are lost and several new possibilities are gradually emerging. Amidst such a cultural onslaught, the revival of the traditional Beni puppetry form is next to impossible. Therefore, the ‘urbanization’ of Beni Putul and the changes in the performing form seems to reflect the crucial changing mores of the post-globalised society.
There is no doubt that the traditional form of this folk art is in severe crisis, and a new trend is emerging. Nowadays, Beni Putul has become a commercial and governmental tool for mass education and social awareness. But how fruitful this shift will be remains to be seen. Keeping in mind both the pros and the cons of this transformation, I would like to end with this insightful observation by Inge C. Orr who also traces the same problem in his thought-provoking essay, ‘Puppet Theatre in Asia’:
A new function of the puppet theatre in Asia has developed during our generation: namely the use of puppets to explain government policies and development schemes to illiterate villagers in India, Indonesia and South Vietnam … New also is the commercial use of puppetry, or puppet plays on television and movie programs in Japan in order to spread knowledge of it as a national tradition. Related to this attempt at preservation are the efforts of the government of India to revitalize puppetry in the interest of nationalism. These new uses of puppetry are perhaps also signs of its decline as a folk art tradition. The form now serves commercial, nationalistic, political functions. Its traditional content, however, of folk tale, folk legend and folk belief is beginning to be no longer socially useful. (Orr 1974:81)
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 A phrase from Ars Poetica (‘The Art of Poetry’), written by Horace in 19 BC. The original, ‘aut prodesse aut delectare’, literally means ‘to teach and delight’ or ‘to delight and instruct’.
 ‘Kath’ means ‘wooden’ and ‘putli’ means doll, so kathputli means wooden doll. These puppets are very popular in Rajasthan. According to some experts, it is the oldest form of string puppetry in India (more details in Ghosh and Banerjee 2014:28–30).
 There might have been a water route for trade and commerce on the Hooghly River between Ranaghat or Sundarban and Tamluk or Contai, as the Rasulpur River, which flows through East and West Midnapore, is actually a tributary of the Hooghly River. And it is possibly through this route that the puppeteers of Bengal entered Midnapore.
 Tarja Gaan is a song or performance in the form of a debate, usually between two characters, which was popular in medieval Bengal. Bangla kabi gaan is a part of this genre.
 The Department of English, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal is currently running the second phase of the UGC SAP-III, DRS Phase-II project entitled ‘Translation, Documentation and Conservation of Tribal Oral Folk Literature and Cultural Texts of West Bengal’.