A glove puppetry tradition of West Bengal, beni putul is considered to be the oldest form of puppetry in the state. In the past, it was prevalent across the districts of Paschim Medinipur and Purba Medinipur. Today, its practice is limited to the village of Padmatamli in Purba Medinipur.
It is believed that beni putul originated in undivided Bengal, in the region of Rajshahi in present-day Bangladesh. After Partition, many puppeteers relocated to parts of southern West Bengal. Historically practised by non-dominant, nomadic caste communities, beni putul was often vilified as a form of begging, as itinerant performers would put up shows in return for alms. This categorisation – steeped in judgements shaped by extant caste hierarchies – drove a number of puppeteers to find an alternate source of livelihood or give up performing altogether.
The puppets used in beni putul are approximately 2.5 feet in height. Traditionally, the heads of the puppets were made with clay and fired in a kiln, after which facial features were painted on. The hands – which needed to be sturdy as the puppeteer would make the puppets clap repeatedly as a form of percussion – were made of wood instead, sometimes with bells tied to the wrists to add to the rhythmic effect. A glove-like attachment, concealed by the costume, connected the heads and hands. The puppeteers used these finger slots to manipulate the figure. In the 2000s, interventions supported by the state government trained the puppeteers to make the puppet’s heads out of thermocol and paper-mâché, allowing for easier manipulation.
A beni putul performance is typically a solo act, although the puppeteer may sometimes be accompanied by a musician playing the dholak (a horizontal percussion drum). The repertory reflects this and most plots feature only two characters. Songs are essential to a performance and are often composed by the puppeteers themselves, who draw on both folk and popular music. The traditional repertory of beni putul was based on epics and religious texts, including stories such as Radha-Krishna Leela (“The dalliance of Radha and Krishna”), Krishner Noukabilas (“The boating episode of Krishna”) and Ganga-Durgar Jhagra (“The quarrel between Ganga and Durga”). The modern repertory, however, focuses on social issues and awareness campaigns, addressing subjects such as AIDs, air pollution and sanitation.
Beni putul has suffered a marked decline as a performing art, with less than ten families in Padmatamli still practising it. Like other forms of puppetry, it has lost a majority of its audience to newer forms of entertainment and media. The absence of sustained support for the puppeteers has also contributed to its decline.
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