The rich culture of Puppetry in Assam!
World Puppetry Day celebrates an art that is as old as the history of communication within humankind which is just as relevant today. Every culture and communication has its own history. The art of puppetry is as grand and glorious a tradition that includes all genres of stories, transcends languages, and unites the world in a way that is truly unique and powerful. Like every year, even this year the world will listen to what the puppets will say on 21st March – a day that is celebrated across the world as World Puppetry Day.
Folk drama is an indissoluble part of traditional communication. The identity of a community is always reflected by its language, cultural performances, and regional inheritance. Puppetry is one such inheritance that has played a vital role as an agent of communication since time immemorial.
Puppets are for entertainment, for sending out social messages, for giving voice to the voiceless and also for therapy. The ancient art of puppetry is finding ever new forms, not just in India, but across the world as artists hone their act to keep up with the changing times.
At present the culture of puppetry is divided into four genres in our country – Shadow Puppetry, Rope Puppetry, Hand Puppetry, and Stick Puppetry. The former two have been prevailing in Indian as well as Assamese society since ancient times while the latter two forms have evolved in recent times. Considering the significance of the role that puppetry has played in conveying messages to mass audiences, the pundits and the researchers of ancient India have termed India as the birth place of puppetry as an art form. Rope Puppetry for the first time came into existence in Rajasthan, and its importance is still prevalent in many parts of the state. With time, the art form had spread to different parts of the nation including Assam. Currently, Rope Puppetry continues to be an important art form in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, and Karnataka.
A glimpse of puppet shows in Assam
The mention of the significance of puppetry in Kalika Puran during the 10th-11th century proves that puppetry has been a part of Assamese culture since the 10th century. The journey that this art form has traversed through the centuries is indeed notable. The artists of the rural villages of Assam have played a major role in keeping this art alive. During the Pre-Vaishnav Era, this art form was an irreplaceable property in transmitting religious and social messages. The mythological stories which are the grassroots of Indian culture were represented in artistic forms with the help of puppets to the villagers. It was believed that stories transmitted through these hand crafted puppets were easily understood by the people who were insulated from any form of education. It was also believed that conducting rituals of puppet marriage chased away bad omens from the society. During the ancient times, couples who could not conceive a baby also conducted rituals of puppet shows based on religious stories to seek blessings from the audiences.
In Assam, this form is known by other names too than just puppetry, such as Boti Putola, Tatek Naat, Putola Bhaona etc. Although this art has begun to perish from the urban society, it is still considered to be an easy medium of mass communication in the rural places. This art form which is primarily based on movements and gestures made with hands requires open spaces for performance.
For the convenience of people, a standard dais size has to be approximately two and a half feet above the ground, and nearly eight to nine feet wide. Conventional puppet shows do not make use of electrical lights but earthen lamps lit on either side of the stage. A team for a puppet show consists of seven to nine members. A Sutradhar, who is the narrator of the whole story, is the link between the people and the performers. The artist, who handles the movements of the puppets and makes them dance as the story proceeds, is known as Baazigar. The Baazigar holds the puppets with a black string, and carries a Pepa made of jute or bamboo flakes to give a voice-over to the puppets. On the other hand, the Sutradhar relays the songs and poems and narrates the script on which the puppets perform.
Archana Kalita of Cultural Department, Rabindra Bhawan says, “There is so much history related to this art form which our generation should know. People hardly know that this art form could be so much more than just entertainment. The messages that these handmade puppets convey are easy to understand and leave an impact for life. It is amazing to see and be a part of this whole art culture. It is very important for the new generation to come forward and carry this tradition ahead. Modernism is good, but carrying the identity that has led to this modernism is always incredible.”
This art form of prehistoric era has been facing major hurdles for survival within the rapidly evolving city life. The central and the state governments have taken major steps to help the art form in adapting the technicalities of the modern age. The state government, from time to time, has arranged for workshops in and across the state and made arrangements for the artists of Assam to perform in other parts of the country mainly to promote the culture and language of the state.
In its simplest essence, puppetry is a form of storytelling, which is why it is so easily relatable to human beings given the ability of imagination, fantasy and creation of ideas in the minds of humans. Almost all countries have their own history of puppetry in its rich cultural bouquet, be it the Turkish tradition of shadow play named Karagöz and Hacivat, which was widespread throughout the Ottoman empire, or the Pupi Siciliani (Sicilian puppets), which are large marionettes dressed in knightly armour and were part of the traditional form of popular theatre in Sicily in the early 1800s.
The way ahead
With its new found status as an art form that can be used for more than just entertainment, is puppetry poised for greater things? Is it ready to meet the challenges in the increasingly competitive entertainment options available today? Will lifeless materials be able to stir the feelings in the heart of people, when people are already occupied in this tech savvy world?
On this World Puppetry Day, the hope is to see puppetry live and grow as long as humans continue to tell stories, their imagination finding a way into the hearts of the audiences and giving rise to voices that were suppressed and silenced.