The People’s Republic of Bangladesh (Bengali: Gônôprôjatôntri Bangladesh), located in South Asia on the fertile Bengal delta, is bordered by India to its west, north and east, by Myanmar (Burma) to its south-east, and by the Bay of Bengal to its south. Up until 1947, this country was part of India, the eastern portion of the state of Bengal. With Indian Partition in 1947, the region today known as Bangladesh was, until 1971, the eastern half of Pakistan.
Bangladesh continues to share cultural heritage with neighbouring West Bengal in India, including puppetry traditions.
String puppets may have been used in the South Asian subcontinent as long as three thousand years ago, and there are early references to puppetry in Bengal in a number of classical works. These include the Gitagabindha, Srikrishnakirtan, and Chondimangala of the 1st century and the Yousuf Julekha, Choitonnyo Vagabato, Choitannya Mongal, and Choitannya Choritammrito of the 14th through 17th centuries. Furthermore, there is some evidence that puppets were used during the 8th century to portray the romance of Radha and Krishna, to tell popular stories and to play a role in community rituals.
Traditional Bengali puppetry includes itinerant benir putul glove puppet performers, found today in West Bengal, who would have been found throughout Bengal, performing stories of Radha and Krishna and singing popular Bengali songs. Bengali rod puppetry, danger putul nach, dating back to the late 14th century, accentuates sung drama in the style of jatra, a kind of popular opera. The string puppet form today found in West Bengal, tarer putul nach, also performed by large itinerant troupes travelling with their tents and performing texts from the jatra. Music and singing are integral to these puppet performances.
Recent “stage puppetry” in Bangladesh has introduced the use of finger puppets, glove puppets, and rod puppets. However, string puppets remain the dominant form in Bangladesh. These are normally 0.3 to 1 metre in height, made of mixed materials, and utilize up to nine strings. Performances often include live music provided by dohars, and puppets may be joined on stage by singers, dancers or other performers. Subject matter varies from traditional or folk stories to contemporary topics and variety acts.
Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Puppet Theatre, directed by Rashid Haroon, is one of the recent companies that perform today. Based in Dhaka, the country’s capital, the repertoire of pieces that this group presents includes a musical overture, patriotic Bengali songs, dancing and singing puppets, and charming stories with dramatic moments. Settings could include the bustling city or a village beside a river near a forest, where crocodiles, tigers, snakes and foxes live close to human habitations. Some of these shows conclude with a patriotic song.