Puppets have been a metaphor in Indian literature for ages. One’s deftness in getting something done is often compared with the skills of a puppeteer. Puppets reflect the helplessness of people in situations beyond their control, like a puppet dancing to the whims of the one pulling its strings. The metaphor, incidentally, is also applicable to the lives of string puppeteers of Muragacha in the Nadia District in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
Poverty and change in public taste have adversely affected generations of puppeteers. Simultaneously, stories pilfered from popular movies, generous doses of eroticism, and lewd language have made their entry and skewed the aesthetics. “But even with these, puppetry is fast losing ground.” The lament is palpable in the voice of veteran puppeteer of Muragacha, Jagabandhu Singha. But Ranjan Roy, another veteran and head of Srima Putul Natya Samaj troupe, is optimistic: “We’re trying our best, so let’s hope for the best too.”
When I went to Muragacha to watch the rehearsals for a new play, The Story of Cloud and Rain, the dexterity of the puppeteers in pulling off the fast, intricate maneuvers with their fingers struck me most. It was a treat for the eyes. The way the artists delivered the dialogue, the changing of backdrops from one of a jungle to that of a village or a city or a river bank were simply amazing. The visit was also an opportunity to know how compulsions of life force artists to compromise on quality, and how the same artists can give stellar, quality performances if given a chance.
With its paddy fields, huts, greenery, ponds, and railway tracks, Muragacha is like any other Bengal village, but its puppetry sets it apart, and much to the credit to diehard artists like Ranjan Roy, Amulya Roy, and Asutosh Biswas. Muragacha was once a puppetry hub. Renowned art director and the pioneer of modern puppetry in Bengal, Raghunath Goswami, during a visit to Muragacha in the early 1970s, had said that the village was home to the largest colony of puppeteers in the world. There were fifty-five families practicing puppetry as a livelihood at the time; the figure is just twelve today.
String puppetry, rod puppetry, and hand puppetry have a long history in Bengal. Their styles and puppets are different. String puppets weigh less and are moved with thin strings. They are made with cloth, papier-mâché, and sholapith. Their height, at the most, is two feet. The stage for a show must be ten feet long, six feet wide, and three feet high, with three sides covered. The puppeteer teams are like families. Everything, right from the script to lights, costumes, and sets are done in clockwork precision.
“You can’t make puppets dance if you don’t dance yourself. But the problem is that very few youngsters are showing interest,” said Asutosh Biswas. He was candid. “Old stories and old scores are passé. Film-based stories and songs have also failed to deliver. Audiences want fresh stories and songs, and authentic traditional puppetry,” he said.
Jagabandhu Singha is the oldest of the great puppeteers. He is also, perhaps, the last representative of the famous Bhanumati school of puppetry. Bhanumati was the daughter of King Bhojraj and knew magic, dance, and acrobatics. “Bhanumati specials were a star attraction… but times have changed and no artist can make a Bhanumati puppet today, forget doing a Bhanumati show,” Singha said and added, “There will be no one to tell these stories after I die.”
Muragacha’s puppeteers are fighting with their backs to the wall. The leading light is Ranjan Roy. “Not only stories… songs, backdrops, sound, light, presentation… we need freshness in each component. Also, it must be a full-time vocation, unlike now when working on agricultural farms is the main source of income. Only 15 percent of the artists do regular shows because the earnings are meager,” Roy said.
Roy is experimenting with many new things. “The Story of Cloud and Rain” is indicative of the winds of change. Old mythological plays are still around but in shorter durations. Roy and his troupe have performed around India and also in France. The Rural Craft and Cultural Hubs project of the state government, supported by UNESCO, has renewed hope. In 2017, Muragacha’s puppeteers organized their first village festival. Things are turning around, albeit slowly, and it is high time that puppeteers stop fate from pulling all the strings of their lives.