Putala nach, also known as putul nach and putola nach, is a form of string puppetry practised in Assam and the only surviving puppetry tradition of the state. It is influenced by – and incorporates elements of – the Assamese folk performance arts of bhaona, bhaoriya and bhramyaman, as well as tarer putul, a form of string puppetry practised in West Bengal.
While the origins of puppetry in Assam have been debated by scholars, puppetry as an art form is referenced in the work of reformer and poet-saint Shrimanta Sankaradeva, who led the propagation of the neo-Vaishnavism movement in the region in the fifteenth century and influenced several local art practices. The puppetry was traditionally called tatak-tatak-natak and the puppeteers, who manipulated the puppets with the help of mechanical devices, were known as tatakiya bajikar. The performances took place in the homes of rich families as part of rituals. However, following a decline, several puppeteers abandoned the practice and by the early years of the 2000s, putala nach was limited to a few performing families in upper and lower Assam.
In lower Assam, puppetry is called putala bhaoriya and it borrows elements of costume, performance structure and musical style from the folk theatre form of khulia bhaoriya. In northern and north-eastern Assam, puppetry is called putala bhaona, and its repertory and use of Brajavali are influenced by forms of bhaona as well as by ankiya nat. In the Darrang district in central Assam, puppetry troupes incorporate songs in Bengali, Assamese and Karbi, and are also influenced by tarer putul and the mobile theatre form of bhramyaman.
In lower Assam, puppets are typically crafted from sholapith and the wood of the madar tree (lower Assam), while dried bamboo roots and the wood of the gamar tree are used for making puppets in upper Assam. The puppets are between 1 and 3 feet in height and are carved without legs and feet. The head, torso and limb are carved separately and joined together with cloth. The strings are attached to the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists and waist. The hands and heads of the puppet – the parts visible to the audience – are covered with a layer of clay and cow dung, before they are painted. Puppets depicting female characters are painted light yellow or pink, religious figures such as Rama and Krishna are painted blue, and puppets depicting demons are painted green. Traditionally puppets had between three and five strings, although in contemporary practice, the number of strings attached to a puppet may be as high as eleven. A single troupe may have a collection of eighty to ninety puppets, and certain puppets may be used to depict multiple characters by changing their costumes and props.
The stage is traditionally marked with bamboo posts, inside which a platform 12 feet in length and 3 or 4 feet in depth is raised at a height of about 3 feet. An opening of a length of 3–4 feet along this platform, serves as the display space for the puppet show. The remaining areas of the platform are covered to conceal the puppeteers. While mobile troupes use different scenes as backdrops during a performance, traditional troupes use a scene depicting a throne.
A puppetry troupe usually comprises five people, including a leader known as bayen or sutradhar, who narrates and sings, in addition to producing and directing the show. His assistants are known as jogali or bhari. The puppeteer is called nachua. One side of the front of the stage is occupied by chorus and musicians playing a khol (drum) and cymbals. The bayen uses a voice modulator called peppa or pyapa – made of a folded strip of bamboo and a plantain leaf – to emphasise the voice of the puppets, which he then interprets to the audience, a practice similar to the use of boli in kathputli. The troupes with members who work in the agriculture sector, generally perform during the winter season and are invited to perform at village fairs on festivals. Putala nach troupes from Assam have also travelled to Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Manipur. Women, historically not a part of puppetry troupes, are now active participants in the art form.
Mythological stories and episodes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are prominent in the repertory of the troupes and are also preferred by their audiences, although newer plays on classics and fantasies. In putala bhaona, the themes, stories and certain characters have been adapted from bhaona plays.
String puppetry is also one of many cultural forms practised in the satra system of Assam. The satra are part of a monastic tradition established by Sankaradeva from the fifteenth century onward, and foster several art forms such as bhaona, ankiya nat, the dance-drama form of sattriya and other musical and fine-arts traditions. Within the satra, the bhakta, or disciples, who are a part of the monastery, present a puppet show once a year, handling all aspects of production, from the making of the puppets and the stage to music, narration and manoeuvring. Auniati Satra, located on the river island Majuli in north-eastern Assam is a prominent centre for this practice. Puppets used in this performance are made of wood, are about 1 foot in height and lack legs and feet. A typical performance includes the main story, invocation to deities and the singing of religious songs. Such performances, held within the monastery and at religious places, are considered devotional activities and are different from the commercial puppetry practices elsewhere in the state.
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“Puppets of India: Putala Nach from Assam.” Sahapedia, October 25, 2016. https://www.sahapedia.org/puppets-of-india-putala-nach-assam-0