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'Puppetry has the power to spread important messages'

  • Published at 04:23 pm March 22nd, 2018
  • Last updated at 04:25 pm March 22nd, 2018

Puppet dance, more commonly known as 'Putul Naach' in Bangladesh, was once the most popular form of entertainment in villages, especially for children. Puppeteers usually depicted stories of rural people, their lifestyles, religious beliefs, rural cultures and much more using these string puppets. Since 2013, March 21 is being celebrated as World Puppet Theatre Day. According to the author of Bangladesh er Oitijhyobahi Putulnatya, published by Bangla Academy on June 2014, Dr Rashid Haroon, Professor, Jahangirnagar University Drama and Dramatics Department, who is also a researcher of Bangladeshi puppetry, this art form has been on the decline for several decades now. Directed by Dr Haroon, the Puppet Theatre Research and Development Centre of Bangladesh is working diligently in order to continue the legacy of this art. In the last two years, he has carried out 39 performances around the country, as well as different international platforms. On the occasion of World Puppet Theatre Day, we had the opportunity to talk to Dr Rashid Haroon at the Drama and Dramatics department of Jahangirnagar University regarding this art form.

What, in your opinion, is the association between puppetry and Bengali culture?

Research says that the relationship between human beings and puppets came into existence since the beginning of civilization. The most important feature of puppets is the representation of human beings. Hence, we naturally feel a certain connection to them. Puppetry, as an art form, is believed to have its roots in ancient cultures. In fact, from different kinds of archaeological objects discovered at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, it has been seen that ancient dolls were made to be animated, often to tell a story. The existence of such moveable dolls are also evident in different places of Africa and Europe. Many researchers believe that the Indian subcontinent was the ancient source of puppetry. Two such oriental legacies in this field are the Marionette (Shuta Putul) and the Shadow Puppet (Chaaya Putul). In the past, puppeteers would enchant villagers with stories that had mythological, historical and social themes, for example, Jataka Tales, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gazir Gaan, Kushan songs etc. Considering this continent’s troublesome communication system, method of education, economic situation and on top of that colonization, one of the main sources of entertainment and source of education for the indigenous people were through puppetry. The indigenous were educated on diverse issues through puppetry, and the art form enjoyed a widespread popularity back then.

What do you think are the reasons behind the decline of puppetry in Bangladesh?

In my three years of experience with puppetry, what I’ve discovered is that it’s almost extinct in marginalized societies these days. However, after the Partition of 1947, puppet artists, most of whom were Hindus, left the country and the puppet industry drastically changed. Also, people's reluctance towards learning about the history behind such arts is making the existing problem even harder. Aggression by a group of people to art forms such as the circus, Jatra and puppetry is also a probable cause. This resulted in the deterioration of quality, as well as of the audience. In our context, these forms of art were being considered as the essential sources of entertainment and an integral part of the traditional “mela”. However, the current scenario of melas is not unknown to us. So how can we can preserve such art forms without celebrating melas like before?

What are the potentials of this art form in our country?

It has immense potential and the power to transmit messages in the global context. Besides being a tool of entertainment and education, it has an influence on different therapeutic usages including dealing with psychological issues and raising consciousness among people with disabilities. If it is possible to use educated university students, especially those who are studying different branches of arts, in making puppetry a more contemporary art form – it will not only enhance the quality but bring back the audience as well. With this very goal, I have started working with this art form. One such example is the Tuntuni O Nak Kata Raja which has given a contemporary essence to puppetry with a range of elements such as the song “Holudia Pakhi Shonali Boron”. The first series of puppet shows titled Khatta Meetha in Duranta TV has earned a great deal of attention among children. During a performance on this year’s National Children Day at Bengal Boi, children were excitedly looking for the lead characters of the series. So the art form has started spreading its magic again. However, it will continue only if we can continuously provide them with good content. Such endeavours will arm the future generation with more knowledge about the art. Also, corresponding with our demography, one of my major concentrations is to bring about the accuracy of this region’s ethnicity. After celebrating World Puppetry Day 2013, the ratio of performances in this industry around the country has increased which has created quite a buzz. Moreover, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Shilpakala Academy are working on a Puppet theatre draft policy. I believe this initiative will open new horizons in nurturing the art profoundly. Since 2015, the students of Jahangirnagar University regularly perform puppet shows on their University Day. In the last five years, these students have earned a sound knowledge about puppetry, which can be considered a strong ground for the future.

How do you define the importance of puppetry in the growth of children?

Regardless of society, race, religion, geographical location or social status, children all over the world are familiar with dolls. I've always defined puppetry as an art of making the impossible, possible. For instance, through puppetry, children can communicate with a tiger. However in reality, is it actually possible? When children encounter such interesting elements in their lives, their minds and imagination reach new heights. The existing scenario is such that children are more fond of cartoons and animated movies. It is also to be believed that the evolution of cartoons and animation have taken inspiration from puppetry.

Should puppetry be included in academics?

If our country’s children can get to learn about different subjects including history and science through puppetry, the process of education would become more interesting for them. A puppet show titled Mon er Kotha by Mustafa Monwar was aired on BTV for 12 years. The program was meant for children but I think it proved to be a source of entertainment and became a learning platform for adults as well, as they are mature enough to realize the actual worth of it. An American venture Sesame Street has its own structure to communicate with children through different characters, which enabled this show to reach an iconic position in the arena of puppetry. In conversation with a Singapore puppetry team, I came to know that under an agreement with the government’s education ministry they are showing performances on puppetry in 200 schools every year for the last eight years, in order to enlighten the psychology and imaginary world of students regarding colours, shapes and much more through puppets. It is essential to educate children through puppetry in our country. However, it would prove to be a lengthy process in the context of Bangladesh in endorsing such programs. For instance, the board books used from grades one to five are full of stories which were previously told by grandmothers. However this has already become a dying custom in our urban culture. Another plan is to incorporate Bengali alphabets by establishing them as a separate character to talk about themselves, making sounds, words, sentences and even stories. This sector has immense potential, in my opinion. My dream is to build a van that will carry different puppets, performing live on the streets. However, such an initiative needs support and sponsorship.

What do you think is the future of this art form in Bangladesh?

I believe that there is no need to think about the future. Because, if you're busy thinking what you'll do in the future, you can't do anything now. The present, however, is all we have and we should make the best of it. Puppetry had, and will always have the power to spread important messages in the form of entertainment. However, the question arises when we start thinking about how we can use this art form in the cases of learning and developing psychology. If we can create a platform where our young puppeteers can come, practice and do research to develop our industry with new stories and characters, it will not be very difficult to hold on to this art form.