Also known as suto putul, tarer putul is a traditional form of string puppetry practised in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. It is notable for the size of its puppets – larger than most string-puppetry traditions of India – and the influences of popular culture, such as jatra and cinema, on its repertory. Tarer putul is one of three puppetry traditions found in West Bengal, where puppetry, in general, is known as putul nach. The other two are dangar putul (rod puppetry) and beni putul (glove puppetry).
While the historical origins of string puppetry in West Bengal are not known, the district of Nadia in the eastern part of the state has been a centre of tarer putul since the 1950s. Following the partition of Bengal in 1947, several puppeteers and artists moved here, and puppetry has been an important industry ever since, at one point employing over ten thousand people.
The puppets of tarer putul are traditionally made of sholapith, the spongy bark matter of the Indian Cork plant found in abundance in the region, and papier-mâché. The carved portion of the puppets is 18 to 20 inches in height and the costume can measure up to 28 inches in length, bringing the total height of the puppet to between 2 to 3 feet. The head, torso and hands of a puppet are carved separately and joined together, and the lower body, without legs or feet, is simply composed of a long skirt. A layer of clay is applied to a carved puppet, after which it is painted. The costume and embellishments are added at the end. Each puppet typically has six strings: two attached to the hands, two to the head, and one each attached to the chest and back. An exception is the puppet depicting a female acrobat, which has ten strings. The strings, in turn, are attached to a control made of bamboo, called chhat.
A tarer putul troupe can have between six to twelve individuals, including the sur master (narrator and singer), the main puppeteer, assistants and musicians. The troupes usually perform between September and April, and are itinerant, sometimes traveling to neighbouring states as well. In such cases, songs and dialogues are adapted into the local language. The sur master, who sings and speaks the dialogues of the puppets, memorises the entire repertory of a puppet troupe. A troupe can have a collection of up to forty puppets, including human and animal characters. It may also utilise a single puppet doll to depict multiple characters through the use of different costumes and ornamentation.
The repertory of tarer putul is extensive, presenting episodes from epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as popular stories, folk tales, jatra and even Bengali films. A show is typically performed inside a tent, on a platform measuring 5 x 2 ft. Although a main curtain and backdrops define the stage boundaries, the puppeteer and his assistant remain visible to the audience. Troupes carry their own tent, posters, and stage and scenic backdrops – often made in Nadia itself – and also advertise their shows themselves. The musical instruments used may vary from the traditional pakhavaj (horizontal drum), harmonium, tabla (a pair of drums) and dotara (string instrument) to more modern instruments such as the keyboard and electric banjo. Some troupes also use pre-recorded songs and dialogue, forgoing the need for musicians.
Variations within tarer putul take the form of differences in the structure of the puppets. Some puppeteers in the South 24 Parganas district, for example, use puppets crafted from wood, which have a wider range of movement. In Sagardwip, in the Ganges delta region, string puppets have a terracotta head, a straw body and hands made of paper, and are manipulated using five strings attached at the neck and shoulders. In the Purulia district, bordering the state of Jharkhand, local puppetry troupe have experimented by incorporating the folk-dance chhau into their performances, with the use of masks, chhau music and repertory.
Once immensely popular, tarer putul has suffered a decline, with only a handful of active troupes left. The process of making puppets and staging shows is costly. Further, the spread of modern forms of entertainment has led to a lack of demand for such performances, resulting in a lack of income and deterring younger generations from taking up the profession. However, some cultural organisations are making an effort to document tarer putul and support the remaining puppeteers in their work.
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