The Unknown Puppets of Northeast

The Unknown Puppets of Northeast

By Sampa Ghosh

Puppetry holds a lower position in the list of performing arts of India. Many scholars say that India is the birthplace of puppetry, which is generally agreed all over the world. Still, in the field of performing arts scene in India, most people put it aside as a ‘children’s art’. But, if one looks into the traditional puppets, which are found in different forms in most of the states, they are performed for all age groups. The traditional puppeteers chose themes generally from Ramayana and Mahabharata and edit the story interestingly not only to suit children, but also to make it more action-oriented, — as per the demand of the puppet theatre. The puppet drama is different from human drama and has a specialty. The traditional puppeteers always try to enhance this special feature.
Kathputli (string puppets) of Rajasthan is the most popular traditional puppet in India. Most people think that Indian puppet means Kathputli. But besides being manipulated by string, the puppets can move by hand, rod or acted as shadow – called respectively hand puppets, rod puppets and shadow puppets. The traditional puppet theatre in India always takes stories, costume and music from the popular folk theatre of the respected region. But the puppeteers edit the plays and add special characteristics so that it looks different from the folk theatre.
Traditional puppets of northeast of India are mostly unknown to the rest of the country. Though puppeteers and puppets-scholar have been engaged on such work, somehow it is not as much highlighted as other traditional puppets of India. Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram do not have any known tradition of puppet theatre. Arunachal Pradesh has some mask dances in Buddhist monasteries, such as Chham dance, Yak dance, etc. Assam, Manipur and Tripura have traditional string puppets. It is said that the shadow puppets were prevalent in Assam, called Tatak-tatak Natak and performed by Tetekiyas or Bajikars with the help of Yantra (machine). Srimanta Sankaradeva brought puppets into Assam from Orissa. Assam has also some influence of Rajasthan and West Bengal puppets. Manipuri puppets may come from West Bengal under the influence of Vaishnavism and puppeteers of Tripura mostly came from the erstwhile East Pakistan after the Partition.
The string puppet of Assam is called Putala Natch and has three categories. The first is popular in lower Assam, particularly in Kamrup and Mongoldoi area. Khulia Bhoariya is a famous folk-form of lower Assam and puppeteers take stories, costumes and styles from Khulia Bhoariya, to present Putala-Bhoariya. In the same manner, Bhaona is a popular folk form of upper Assam and their puppet show imitates this form, called Putala-Bhaona. The puppets are made of solapith, without any legs and the heights vary from 1 to 3 feet. The characteristics of these puppet theatres are: Bayen (Sutradhar), who is the producer, director and coordinator of the show; two puppets Kalua and Bhelua, who sweep the stage; and a modern looking figure, called Changra, who passes social comments. The second category is seen in Mazuli, the largest river island of the world, where the disciples of Sankaradeva established a lot of Satras (hermitage). Shows are performed only in Satras against dakshina (payment). The small wooden puppets have strong resemblance to Oriya style. They follow the stories and presentation style of folk-form Ankia Nat, developed by Sankaradeva. A single actor memorises all the plays, which is a unique characteristic of its kind. The third category is seen in Kalaigaon of Darang district. A group from Nadia, West Bengal, is believed to have come here and initiated the formation of local groups. A few group leaders are Bengali, using Bengali language in their shows, along with Karbi and Assamese songs and dance, and performing mainly in Bengali-speaking areas. These groups started in the seventies and remain heavily influenced by the mobile theatre of Assam.
Manipur has the traditional string puppet, called Laithibi Jagoi. The puppets are made of bamboo and carry local facial characteristics in their design. The themes are taken from the life-story of Krishna. The main characteristics are: the puppets manipulated from a greater height with long strings; and masks of demons and animals used along with puppets.
The string puppet of Tripura is called Putul Nach. Most of the puppeteers came from Comilla, Mymensing and Syllet district of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after 1947. They had witnessed puppet shows or were associated with puppet theatre there. So, when they set up their habitat here, they started their own groups. The puppeteers used to make puppets out of solapith, but as this is not easily available in Tripura, they started making puppets from wood or paper-pulp. The puppets are small and themes are taken from Yatra (folk plays). Mohanpur near Agartala has the maximum number of groups, which perform in Bengali. The main characteristics are: every group having a scroll-like banner, on which the pictures of puppets are drawn with a Vaijayantimala (dancer) puppet painted on a larger scale than the others; and a folk character Mona (dear chap) in every show. There are small playlets on Mona’s misfortunes and misadventures called News. One story has Mona going to the forest for gathering woods. The singer outside the stage tries to prevent him, as there is a tiger in the forest, but Mona does not listen and the tiger whisks him away. They have also humorous News on Vaishnav-Vaishnavi or Jagai-Madhai, etc. This type of News is still found in the traditional puppet shows of Bangladesh. The News reminds one of the Punch & Judy show of England, where the Punch (hand puppet) also does similar humourous and foolish acts.
Assam has the oldest puppet group in Nalbari district, established on 1885. The Srimanta Sankaradev Kalakshetra Society of Guwahati, under the government of Assam, recently opened a puppet theatre with regular ticketed shows under the able guidance of Chabin Rajkhuwa. One hopes that under such efforts for resurrection, the puppets of Northeast India will become popular and recognised all over India.

(Published in Rasamanjari Magazine)

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