Puppetry in Assam

by Gitali Saikia | 2018 | 39,831 words

This represents a methodological study of Puppetry in Assam, which forms a major part of their ancient traditions and folk dramas. The art of puppetry has close relation with Assamese culture and society. Even though the availability of local literature is limited, there are many books on Indian puppetry....

Economic condition of puppeteer

The economic conditions of the traditional puppeteers are not satisfactory. It has already mentioned that the numbers of active puppet troupes are very few. Due to lack of interest of common people, they got very fiew invitation. Unfortunately, puppetry has disappeared from sattras (monastries) of Assam. The puppet troupe of Kamalabari Sattra of Majuli was very popular for puppetry. The first play of putala bhaona of Kamalabari sattra was “Sitaharan”.The second one was “Balibadh”.The play Haramohan was written by late Chandra kanta Deva Goswami, who was Straadhikar of Kamalabari Satra. Late Soruram Muktiram Atoi wrote “Sitaharan” and “Balibadh”. In addition, plays performed by the puppeteers of Kamalabari Satra were Rambijoy, Harichandra Upakhyan etc. The puppet troupe got invitation from many places, however now it is dying art of Kamalabari Satra. According to present Satradhikar Sri Narayan Chandra Goswami, in many times he tried to revive this art form in Natun Kamalabari Sattra. Even, he spent his own money for making puppets .Sunanda Bayan Atai, Ramanath Bayan Atai, Someswar Namlogua Atai and Dandiram Gayan Atai accompanied him.The votaries are called Atai in sattra. For some years, puppetry earned its life in Sattra. Their journey continued until 1982. The members of the puppet troupe were—late Debananda Barbayan, late Paramananda Bayan, late Haricharan Saikia, late Khargeswar Gayan, late Hari Pathak, late Moniram Pathak, Sri Prema bhuyan.Late Haricharan Saikia was an artists pension holder.The artists who made puppets were late Prabhat Bora, Janardan Bhuyan, Rupram Saikia, Soilen Saikia, Mohendra Bora.

There is an institution called “Srimanta Sankar Kristi Kendra” in the Natun Kamalabari Satra. Experts give training on Satriya dance and other Satriya performing arts to interested people. Sangeet Natak Akademy of Delhi came to know about the puppetry troupe of Kamalabari Satra.In 1982, Sangeet Natak Akademy granted one thousand rupees for making puppets in the name of Sankardev Kala Kristi Kendra and gave them assurance that they will organize a puppet exhibition of puppets of Natun Kamalabari Sattra. Puppeteer got encouragement and made puppets of different size and shape.They made wide range of puppets from human figures, demon figures to animals and birds fugures.There was no bound of joy among puppeteers. However, letter Sangeet Natak academy made no contact with the Satra authority. Some of the people engaged in puppetry troupe were very old. The narrator and manipulator Haricharan Saikia passed away.Gradually the other members also left practicing putalanach.

Due to lack of interested puppeteers it is completely vanished from the list of performing art of Kamalabari sattra.

“I feel very sorry that puppetry is a dying art form in our satra. I have personally tried to revive it.I met in conversation with former secretary Gautam Borah of Shrimanta shankardev Kalakhetra.He assured me to grant a heavy amount with discussing with chief minister Tarun Gagoi.However, no satisfactory result I got from any side.”[1]

The colours of the puppets got faded and they were not in position of re-use in Natun Kamalabari Satra.Puppeteers need huge amount of money to make new puppets with modern techniques. However, they are not getting any financial grant even from government. Puppeteers are helpless and they are suppressing their desire to restarting their puppet troupe.

Once, puppet troupe of Auniati Satra was very popular in upper Assam. In Auniati and Natun Kamalabari Satra, the puppetry troupe was consistituted with the votaries of the sattras. Mambers of the last puppet group of Auniati Sattra wasPushpa Sharma (Sutra dhar),Madhab Bayan (Bayan),Khagen Lekharu (Narrator), Nabin Bayan (Musician),Govinda Oja (Bayan),Vishnu Bayan (Manipulator),Prabin Bhuyan (Musician),Lakhi Kakoti (Musician) and Drona Pathak (Singer).

This troupe performed not only in various parts of Assam,but also in many times they went out side of Assam for the purpose of performing this traditional art form.Some of the amount they get,they offered to the treasury of the satra. They never demanded any fix or highe remuneration from organizers. When they got invitation from a palce far from Satra, they themselves spent a huge amount of communication cost. They needed to hire vehicles to carry the boxes of puppets, musical instruments and equipments of stage. But due to a little amount of remuneration offered by organizers, puppet troupes were facing money problem.They were invited to perform during Durga puja,function of Bihu,Lakshmi puja and so on. Yet, they were waiting for government help. Gradualy they lost hope. And like Natun Kamalabari Satra, one-day name of puppet troupe of Auniati Satra also vanished from the list of performing arts of Auniati Satra.

Nabaratna putala theatre is a famous puppet group of Nagaon. This troupe has been performing in different part of Assam. Giridhar Senapati,is the director of this group. Besides own intiative, he performed many times in association of Sangeet Natak Akademy and Songs and Drama division of Information and Broadcasting Department. Nabartna puppet group is not stick to traditional way of performing.They perform string puppet, and uses new techniques to attract audience. They use dramas of very new concept. Giridhar Senapati learnt “Trick puppet” in a cultural exchange programme and introduced it to his performance. “Sabitri Satyaban” and “Bhakto Prahlad” etc. are religious drama of Nabaratna puppet troupe. Gabhoru Manor Jui, Noi Ghator Amor Prem, Mone Soja buwari are drama of social theme. Novels of famous writers of Assam, such as Ranju Hazarika are use as theme of their drama. They use double stage.They have modern tent of one thousand audience capacity.The stage is of twenty feet broad and four feet high. They never use prerecorded dialogue and music.

However, Giridhar Senapati is not satisfied with the poor audience support and government negligence towards puppetry.

“Puppetry cannot be an idle source of income in present Assam.Puppeteer must have another source of income.The cost associate to puppetry is very highe compare to the income from performance of puppetry. Besides puppeteers, a puppet group includes light man; man for stage preparing and man for music in case of live performance. They are employees of the puppet troupe. Therefore, the producer needs a heavy amount of money to pay them as remuneration. Producers do not always get money they wish, because audience of puppetry is very unsatisfactory in some places. However, producer has to pay his employee whether he gets money or not. Therefore, he must have another occupation through which he can run his puppet troupe.This problem is facing by most of the traditional puppet troupes of Assam, due to which puppeteers involves in another source of income. I am a farmer by profession and I run my puppet troupe due to my unconditional love for puppetry, not as my first source of income”.[2]

Not only puppeteers, performers of ther folk forms are also facing many problems.Poverty is the most important among them.

Assam Puppet Theatre is a well-known traditional puppet troupe of Assam.Narayan Deka is the director of this puppet troupe. In 1988, Narayan Deka registered his puppet troupe under Cultural affairs of Assam government.He has been performing in different parts of Assam. In 1994, for the first time he performed in different parts of Guwahati with association of “Sangit Natak Akademi”Delhi and Assam Cultural Affairs Guwahati.He has been performing in different prestigious functions of India since 1994.

Some of them are—

1997—In the Cultural exchange programme at Silchar and Dimapur with association of NEZCC.

1998—In the occasion of Silver jubilee of Kolkata Puppet theatre, with association of Assam Cultural Affairs at Kolkata.

1999—In the occasion of Children day at Shrimanta Shankardev Kalakhetra,Guwahati.

2000—In the occasion of Millenium celebration at Shrimanta Sankardev Kalakhetra, Guwahati.

2003—In Kolkaketra with joint association of NEZCC and Kalakhetra Society.

2004—Different Lower Primary schools of Assam in the initiative of Assam Sarva Shikhsa Abhiyan, about the right to education.

2004—Radio play “Mancharupa” in All India Radio Guwahati.

2006-2008—Awareness programme in the initiative of Songs and Drama division of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

2007—Punjab kala Bhawan in the occasion of National Puppet Festival,in Association of Sangit Natak Akademy at Chandigarh.

2008—Awareness programme of Senitation and Pure water in the initiative of Public Health Department Assam in Guwahati.

2010-2014—Awareness programme of Assam Aids Control society in Guwahati.

2011—Sixth Indian Putala Festival in Shrimanta Shankardev Kalakhetra of Guwahati.Under this programme his troupe performed in Lakhimpur and Guwahati.

2012—National Puppet Theatre in Kolkata University, in association with Dhumketu Puppet Theatre.

Besides the above-mentioned progammes his troupe has been performing in different occasions like Ras mohotsav, Durga puja etc. However, he is not satisfied with the present condition of puppeteers of Assam.

In Assam, most of the traditional puppeteers are not getting facilities offered to artist by the government.

“Puppetry is almost in its death bed. In my view, future of puppetry is dark. New generation is not interested in puppetry. Government of Assam is not considering puppetry as a part of culture. I have applied more then three times for artist pension. However, everytime I disappointed with the result.”[3]

However, he got one time assistance from Assam government, and also small assistance from Sangit Natak Akademi from 1995 to 2012, which is not helpful in running his journey of puppetry.He also mentioned his applause to National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai for their fellowship.

Banikanta Barman is the prominent puppeteer of present Assam. He runs The “Mohkhuli Putala Nach dol”. This troupe is the oldest troupe of lower Assam, established in 1885. Banikanta Barman learnt art of puppetry from his father Harikanta Barman.

According to him puppeteers are struggling for survival.

“I have deep love for puppetry, therefore I am struggling to revive it. My journey is not at all smooth.I am trying to adding new concepts and themes to my plays. However,the respone audience is not as good as I expect.”[4]

Thus, the main problem of puppeteers are lack of interest of people towards this art.

Abani kanta Sharma is the founder of Ruby puppet theatre of Dokhola of South Kamrup.He learnt puppetry from “Ma Santoshi Puppet theatre” a Puppet tropue of West Bengal. Now he is running his troupe as his source of income. Besides performing in different place,he gives training to other interested people. However,his troupe is also suffering from many struggles.Abani kanta Sharma revealed in an telephonic interview that he is including rod pupet in his shows to bring some changes.According to him,the future of puppetry is not free of danger in Assam.[5]

Besides Assam, position of puppetry is very depressing in Delhi, Mubai and Calcutta.

“It is paradoxical that while it is during the last three decades or so the puppet traditions all over the country have been discovered, national and regional festivals organised, 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. Thousands of puppets specially from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have been sold to tourists,museums and research workers,and in both these states,thousands of puppeteers have given up performing and taken to selling plastic and stainless steel utensils in exchange of old clothes as venders. Old puppetters are dying and younger members in the family are taking to more lucrative professions.”[6]

Even the puppeteers of famous Kathputli colony at Shadipur of New Delhi are struggling for survive. The puppeteers colony was in a slum of New Delhi.

They are now forced to move another place by a plan of Delhi Development Authority.

“Under the plan,which was launched in 2014, the slum dwellers are to be relocated to the transit camp for two years,while residential flats are built for them to move back into in Kathputli Colony.The makeover of the slum,which is home to the largest congregation of street performers in the country,is expected to displace 2,800 families,as per a recent D D A survey.But the puppeteers,after whom the colony was named,are very sceptical.They say that since a big portion of their revenue depends upon the exclusivity of the place they reside in-Kathputli Colony,which is known as a centre for puppetry-they will loss out on big business.The process of relocation,however,has started,with many having already moved to temporary accommodations in Anand Parbat,which is around 5km from Kathputli colony”.[7]

In recent years,serious declining of number of practitioner is becoming one of the big challenge for performing art.Impact of globalization on folk performing art is becoming serious issue for performers of folk performing art.As culture is dynamic aspect of society and it changes with time and taste of people, therefore performers need to change their mind set and incorporation of new techniques can help them in reviving those art form which are losing their glory.For safeguarding folk arts, systematic study is very necessary.

Ray of hope:

However, international organization UNESCO has been showing serious interest on preserving in folk performing art. However, contrast to depressing situation of traditional puppet troupes, some troupes of Assam are very hopefull regarding the future of puppetry. Many well-educated people have started their production house of puppetry and trying to innovate and incorporate new things into puppetry. Rang ghar Putala theatre of Nagaon is good example of it. They are incorporating new techniques in their performance. They are using double pandal and three-story stage like mobile theatres of Assam.Their puppets are of body size, which attracts audience.Besides religious plays, they are extensively using dramas like Kargil Yudh, which is technically wonderful.The Rang ghar Putala theatre is earning great popularity in upper and central part of Assam. They are introducing new techniques in their performance. Transition in music, theme and pandal is distinct in Rang ghar Putala theatre. They are innovating new techniques to attract common people.They incorporate some popular characters of Assamese society.As for example, they always starts their performance with a scene of a puppets singing and playing harmonium. The puppet is of Dr.Bhupen Hazarika, the legendary singer of Assam. This unique opening style of performance has earning popularity among every age group of people. Dr.Bhupen Hazarika is residing in heart of every cultured man of Assam. Organising committee of different functions invites Rang ghar putala theatre for performance. “We are continuously getting invitation from different places of upper Assam. Our earning is also satisfactory. For most of our members, Rang ghar Putala theatre is source of Income. We are very hopeful for its golden future”[8] It is the calling of time to introduced new techniques in traditional art forms.

Puppet troupe of Assam Cultural Affairs is also earning popularity. They are invited to many places.

This troupe performes mainly Rod puppets made of ply board.

“We want to revive this art form.So we introduced Rod puppet.Our troupe is totally modern.We use pre-recorded voice and music and we hire artist from outside if we feel necessary.”26

In present Assam, Surajit Academy is a well-known modern puppet troupe of Assam.This puppet troupe has been performing in different corners of Assam. Principal of puppet troupe of Surajit Academy is Binita Devi. She is a junior fellowship holder of Ministry of Culture of India.Her troupe is working for training to the youngsters. Binita Devi uses glove puppet, rod puppet, string puppet along with magnet puppet. Surajit Academy takes initiatives to organizes puppet shows. Due to their attractive style of approach many times they got finanicial support from “Sangeet Natak Akademy” for organizing puppet shows in different places of Assam.

Sagarika puppet theatre of Khetri is also earning popularity with their unique Bihu dancer puppets. They attached many strings to puppet of Bihu dancer and this puppet is earning great popularity even in Kolkata and Delhi. Sagarika Puppet theatre use both Rod and String puppet. The producer and director Manoranjan Roy has brought change by including scenes of car driven and Helicopter flying. He has been performing in many places of Assam.Many times he got chance to perform in national level also.He performed in Indira Gandhi Manab Sangrahaloy (Bhupal), Indira Gandhi national Centre for Arts and Culture, Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre Kolkata and so on. Techniques and beauty of his puppet caught attention of the Director of Delhi National Museum and he ordered some puppets. Now his puppets are showcased in Delhi National Museum and in Indira Gandhi manav Sangrahaloy, Bhupal.A tourist group from Germany also came to visit his office and met in valuable converstion.He supplied three puppets to germany.

New generation puppet troupes are hopeful concerning the future of puppetry in Assam. College students are giving interest on puppetry. Students of Mass Communication Department of Glorious Cotton college is engaging in puppet making and other projects of puppetry.Mass communication and Journalism departments of many college of Assam have introduced puppetry in their course.This is very good step taken by authorities of colleges.However,public and private sponshorsip is very much important for surviving folk arts.

Footnotes and references:


Informant: Narayan Chandra Goswami, Satradhikar of Natun Kamalabari satra,8/2/14


Informant: Giridhar Senapati,puppeteer,Marigaon.5/12/17


Informant:Narayan Deka,puppeteer,Makhibaha,Nalbari. 7/12/17


Informant:Banikanta Barman,puppeteer,Mohkhuli,Nalbari. 7/12/17


Informant: Abanikanta Sharma,,puppeteer,South Kamrup,6/9/15


Awasthi Suresh:Performance Tradition in India,National Book Trust, 2001,p:51


financialexpress.com,18th July 2017


Informant: Khytish Bora,puppeteer.Nagaon. 7/10/17

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