Debates encircle upon the fact that whether the String Puppets or Tarer Putul as locally known in Bengal were the indigenous folk form of Bengal. It is believed that the String Puppets of Bengal originated from “Kathhputli” or wooden puppets of Rajasthan. Long time back, a group of itinerant performers from Rajasthan had come to a village in the undivided Bengal to perform in some local Mela. Inspired by the performance, the locals adopted the form and soon it had become one of the important means of rural entertainment. Jatra is the form of play with which the String Puppets perform. The performers were and are still mostly illiterate poor villagers, hence the dialogues are improvised. Now, though the situation has changed, and written scripts are found among the performers, yet that is only the structure, the entire performance adapts to the immediate ambiance and the audience choices at the time of performance.
Scholars have though opined that if the ancient Sanskrit plays are referred, then the characters like “Sutradhar, Pathashalika, Bajikar” and the design of those performances indicate that the String Puppetry is the oldest form of puppet theaters if compared with the rod puppetry or glove puppetry.
String Puppets are made of organic material, mostly from the Shola Pith or sponge wood that grows wild in the abandoned wetlands of Bengal. These puppets are then dressed in decorated Zari embroided costumes according to the characters they signify. Unless very significant, the puppets normally do not have legs, the absence of which is hidden by the clothes. The String Puppets are manipulated by nearly six strings. Within a narrative structure, the way the characters are made alive through artistic brilliance, and the way the puppets, operate as agencies of revelation, it becomes difficult to believe that the entire cast and crew belongs to the lowest caste and class of West Bengal. There were professional puppet artists before, but now due to the emergence of other new forms of entertainment like the Television and the Internet, hardly professional puppet artists can be found.
The String Puppet Theater though is classified as a folk dance form, but it is rather a folk theater, which is a collective activity and requires full time commitment and discipline of a theater group. Economic crisis has changed the reality and fate of the String Puppet artists. The same has happened for Dhiren Nattya Tarer Putul Nach Party from Jalaberia in South 24 Parganas of West Bengal. Shri Krishnapada Sardar, the director of the group was recalling that most of the performers were full time professional puppet theater artist for his father, Dhiren Sardar, once quite a famous name in this trade. Now the artists perform for their emotional reason in order to carry out the responsibility of saving the art form. Krishnapada Sardar, who writes and directs his String Puppet plays, says that it has to be dependent on his family members, his sons Vokto Ram Sardar, Shamonto Ram Sardar only. His daughter Shantoshi Mondol struggles hard to manage the household in her in laws house to perform with his father. The group is still struggling with getting good performers as most of the rural men and women migrates to the city for their better source of income as construction laborers, brick kiln workers or in Government public welfare initiatives. Now, the forms of rural socializing patterns have changed. Earlier, rural socialisation centered around the fairs and festivals which were the sites of performances. These rural fairs both in villages and city suberbs now attracts other mainstream entertainment modes. Thus the number of shows has decreased so has the opportunities to earn as String Puppet performers. Yet Krishnapada Sardar and his team never compromise on the basic traditional form and content of their plays that Krishnapada’s father had initiated and earned accolades for.
But, a truth, a reality does not evaporate with time. It just transforms itself to take new forms and shapes. The art of puppetry in Bengal has evolved considerably by interacting with other art forms and media over the years. The tunes of Bollywood to woo new audiences, is quite common in string puppet theaters around Bengal. Traditionally, the puppet theater enacted stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, puranas and local histories and legends. With Government and private entrepreneur intrusion to make use of the emotional appeal of string puppet theaters new issues like family planning, Swatchh Bharat, preservation of forests are woven into the traditional form. Even the performers are trying out new means to experiment with the form to bring out more utilitarian usages of the form of string Puppet Theater.
Among a lot of popular plays been written and directed by Krishnapada Sardar, “Ghor Koli Aschhe”; an evil era is approaching has won the majority of hearts. Traditional in form and content the play embarks upon the morality of humankind. Krishnapada Sardar has imagined a span of time, personalized as a king called “Koli”. In his reign, morality, ethics, justice are all evaded and selfish opportunist peoples earns happiness. The whole form is high melodrama. The trance of the performance is broken at times with spectacles of a set of speaking objects, the dolls or the puppets. The arbitrary use of snakes dancing, or dolls smoking original cigarettes signify this attempt. Audiences are given an emotional break, a relief with the exhibition of these spectacles. Jostling with rightful behaviour and moral law, Krishnapada Sardar concludes that one should respect their family values more than material resources, which are temporary assets of life.
Thus, the fascinating multiplicity of Indian storytelling lies in the worlds of the String Puppet theaters of Bengal. Experimentations and deep-rooted emotions to save the richness of this repertoire will save the form from being extinct.