There was a time when listening to puthi sitting under a banyan tree or at someone's yard after dusk was a prime mode of entertainment for the people living in villages and suburbs. But now even in the villages it is hard to find a gathering in the evening to listen to puthipath.
Puthipath (recital of puthi) is an ancient trend where myths, legends and folklores are recited by the poets or good reciters. Villagers used to gather at someone's yard to listen to puthi after finishing their daytime jobs.
Now this tradition is coming to city life in a new style. Young city people, especially students coming to the city from different parts of the country, are listening to puthi, written by budding rhymesters, at leisure.
Informal friend groups gather on the Dhaka University campus, at student halls, canteens on other places at leisure times and listen to puthis. These puthis follow the same style and tune of the traditional ones but are written on contemporary urban issues.
"In my childhood I used to listen to puthipath in the mosque during religious festivals like Muharram, Shab-e-Barat, Shab-e-Qadr. But the puthis with contemporary urban issues are more interesting," said Abdur Razzak, a service holder, who frequents DU campus to listen puthi in some evenings.
"When I came to the city to study I missed my mother. But then I heard that someone wrote a puthi about a son coming to city and missed his mother's affection. I became very emotional because it simply matched my story," said Abdullah Al Mamun, a student of Islamic Studies at DU.
Kabbo Kamrul, a young urban professional who writes and recites puthi on contemporary urban issues like current politics, trial of war criminals, price hike of essentials, and the struggle of garment workers, vendors, tea stall owners and small traders and entrepreneurs.
“Through the story Kodom Alir Molom I have tried to portray the character of a street balm-seller and then inserted his political views into it where he said the balms are needed to heal the country's wounds,” said Kabbo.
“Incorporation of urban issues in the puthi made it popular among the middle-class city dwellers,” he said.
According to those who used to listen to puthipath in their childhood or in the villages the reasons behind the declining trend is the topic of the stories.
"Nowadays people are not interested to know about the stories of Sonabhan, Yusuf-Julekha or Sohrab-Rustam. They want to know about the real life and real stories," said Razzak.
“Besides, in the past villagers needed to gather at some places to converse. But now the use of mobile phones has improved the communication to such a level that people do not need to sit together anymore,” he said.
“The practice of writing puthis based on contemporary issues is not new. Stories of Ershad Shikdar, local love stories and Iraq War are also relevant issues for puthis in the villages. These are called Pothua Kobita,” said Saymon Zakaria, a puthi researcher and manuscript editor, Folklore Department, Bangla Academy.
The tradition of listening to puthi has declined in the villages.
"The trend of listening to puthi is on the wane in the villages of Netrakona, Mymensingh, Kishoreganj areas. People are now very busy and have other modes of entertainment like watching satellite TV channels. They do not have the time to listen to the story of Rupbhan, Ramayan and Gunaibibi," said Saymon, in the light of his frequent visit to these areas.
One reason the trend of puthi is on the wane is that the new generation is not coming to take up the helm. "For the last few years I have seen only old and aged men to recite from puthi. A major part of the listeners consists of children and women of different ages. It means that once these men are dead there will be no one to take up their places," said Saymon.
"But even if that happens puthipath will remain in our culture taking some form. Because tradition is like a river -- even if it dries up it leaves behind a trace to speak of its existence in the past," he said.
Chitromatika's love for puthi lives on
According to Saymon Zakaria, the tradition of puthi recital goes back to as far as 12th century during the reign of Madan Pala, the last ruler of Pala dynasty.
"It is known that Chitromatika, Madan Pala's wife, used to listen to puthipath of Mahabharat from a pundit or 'pathak'," he said.
"Pala rulers were Buddhists. Still we see them listening to a Hindu script Mahabharat. Similarly, when Islam came to Bengal, Muslims assimilated the tradition of puthipath during religious festivals like Muharram. The style and tune are the same -- just the topics are different," he said.
In tea gardens, the Monipuri labourers listen to puthi with musical instruments like dhol, mridanga, korotaal and harmonium.
"Many old puthis were lost because we could not preserve those -- for an example Manik Pir's story. The first part of the Manik Pir's puthi kept at the Bangla Academy is illegible. The rest are fifty percent readable. Sometimes we try to collect puthis by listening to the 'pathaks'," said Saymon.