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     Volume 1 Issue 2 | July 22, 2006 |


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Cover Story

I Dance the Way
You Make Me Dance
How Is the Puppet to blame?

Rafi Hossain

With this article we pay our homage to Dhan mia, a genuine upholder of the tradition of puppet show in our country. A true lover of the art, he persistently refused to mix the age-old tradition of puppet theatre with modern techniques that some of the new puppeteers have been doing. We should do everything we can to take this tradition forward and let it not die.

Dhan mia had been known to me for a long time. My involvement with theatre and other cultural activities had brought me in touch with him. Dhan mia was a committed puppeteer, a true artist of the genre. The name of his company is “Royal Bina Putul Nach”. The last time I saw him was when I visited him in Brahmanbaria in December, 2005. When I had told him about our plan to bring out Star Insight, with a mission to write about the many dedicated souls scattered all over the country who have been enriching our society in many ways, Dhan mia was very excited. With passion and enthusiasm he talked to me about his puppets in detail and showed me around his place.

As we were putting the final items together for the publication of the Star Insight, the heart wrenching news came that Dhan mia was no more. On February 3, 2006 Dhan mia at the age of seventy-five died of brain hemorrhage in Brahmanbaria. Along with deep sorrow I felt a pang of guilt. Dhan mia who had personally helped me with this write up could not see his story published before his death.

As a professional puppeteer Dhan mia did quite well in running his family for more than half a century. It was with his income from his puppet shows that he managed to send three of his sons and his only son-in-law abroad for a better living. Not only that, more than two decades ago, Dhan mia had gone to Russia to perform his puppet shows, and to India to participate in a workshop on puppet theatre.

Dhan mia had been very happy and contended performing with his puppets and entertaining his audience across the country. That's why we heard him say, “I love my puppets more than I love my children; I'm known because of them. My children also treat the puppets with affection for they know that it was the money these puppets brought home that helped them live, eat and settle in life.”

Dhan mia continued with a smile, “To tell you frankly, at first I was a 'bidi' (country cigar) maker. I was a different person at that time. After I entered the world of art and performance of puppetry, I turned into another person.”

Before becoming a puppeteer, at an early age Dhan mia had started working at the family trade of making 'bidi'. His parents used to prepare and cut the tobacco leaves while his elder brother Sona mia, his younger sister Milon Nessa and Dhan mia himself used to roll them into bidis. Dhan mia was only ten or twelve at that time. In between work, he along with his friends, would go for a swim in the river Titas or for fishing in the nearby ponds, or, play the various traditional rural games called 'ghuti', 'daria bandha' and 'ha-du-do', most of which are not known to the urban children today. In the midst of these joys and childhood pranks, Dhan mia would often sing out loudly in a very melodious voice.

At that time, different circus parties would come to B'baria every year. Along with them came various new puppet groups from all over the country. Some times a puppet group would come from North Bengal, some times from Krishnanagar or from Narayanganj. Dhan mia was always more attracted towards the puppet groups than to the circus parties. He loved the songs of the puppet shows. In between making bidis he gradually made friends with various puppet companies. At one time he found himself singing at the shows for this or that group.

We asked him how that happened. Dhan mia's answer was simple, “While making bidi I would often sing. I happened to have a good voice. The singers of the puppet groups, when they heard me sing, readily drew me in their circle.” Then with a laugh, “I used to make bidi. and see, I, a bidi labour, in my spare time started to sing at the puppet shows for a salary of eight anna (equivalent to 50 paisa now). Working for eight anna, I, in return came to learn the art of puppetry. The guru of the puppet theatre was Girish Acharya of Krishnanagar village under Nabinagar in Brahmanbaria. I learned from him. But you should know, no body gave me any training or taught me anything personally. I learned only from observing. After watching and observing for some times I started making my own puppets and practising to perform with them. I was then fifteen to twenty years old . At twenty, I myself formed a party of my own. After forming the party, I started to give shows regularly for a fee of four paisa per person and this brought me about Taka sixty to seventy per month. From that I used to pay one Taka to the harmonium player, and one and a half Taka to the 'dhuli' (the drummer). I was happy with that. At the beginning, I used to do the stories of Rama and Ravana’s fights. I took these stories from Girish Acharya's shows.

Dhan mia was the second among the Muslim puppeteers in the Brahmanbaria area. Before him, Kalu mia, who was our years older than Dhan mia and came from the neighbouring village of Talshahar was the first Muslim in the area to take up puppetry as a profession. Both of them had the same guru, Girish Acharya. We wanted to know if there was any difference between the puppet shows of his guru Girish Acharya and that of Dhan mia.

He said, “There has been a lot of difference, in fact, a huge difference. During their time they used to perform the stories of Radha-Krishna, the abduction of Sita, Rama-Lakshman, Joy Honuman etc from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But now, except the love stories of Radha-Krishna, we don't do the other stories anymore. Our stories are now based on events of our every day life as well as on our folk and fairy tales. We often tell the stories of farmers working in the fields, men fishing, or women husking paddy, young girls carrying empty pitchers to the river for water etc.” In a complaining voice he then adds, “There are now some new puppet groups who use live people in the name of puppets. My party never does that. I have never used girls for the dances. I've always performed with inanimate dolls and I still do that.

Puppetry has an art of its own. If you make a live person dance with a puppet then the art of puppet dance loses its distinctiveness, it gets spoiled. I will never do that.”

Sitting among the audience at a few of Dhan mia's shows, we noticed how wonderfully he gave his voice to the words and actions of the puppets on the stage. His 'Bairagi' and 'Vaishnabi' puppets come dancing to the stage and then start quarreling over the needs and wants in their daily lives. The 'bairagi' starts beating the 'vaishnabi', but when she falls down on the stage, it's the 'bairagi' who affectionately raises her and tends to her wounds fondly. Among some of the other characters in Dhan mia's puppet family are the princess, who dances and sings “I'm the princess of Rupnagar. I bring all the enchantment of my beauty', the beautiful dancers and singers Milan Devi and Parul Devi, and the the puppet character of Dhan mia, the violin player. As is the practice in a puppet show, Dhan mia, the puppeteer stood behind the curtain unseen and made the puppets move and dance by pulling rhythmically on the strings attached to the puppets. He used his own voice to imitate the tone of the different puppet characters, while at the same time he played on a bamboo flute from time to time. Now and then he we would wet the flute with water to make the sound of it reach the audience clearly.

Besides performing his puppet shows across the country, Dhan mia had presented his shows more than once on television, and in three films -Dui Rajkumar (Two Princes), Cholo Ghar Bandhi (Let's Make a Home) and Matir Putul (Clay Dolls). However, as a professional puppeteer, Dhan mia prefers to present his shows more in different village and city fairs as he feels that the true nature of a puppet show is appreciated more by the audience in such atmospheres. In his professional life he received the cooperation of many people all of whom he considered his near ones.

Dhan mia with his Royal Bina Putul Nach family

There were still many more things we wanted to know about. What cooperation did he get from his family in his long professional life? With a deep sigh of contentment Dhan mia said, "I used to make bidi at the age of ten. All my family members used to work together. Now my family members help me with my puppets. My daughter dresses up the puppets, adorns each puppet in a suitable dress for the role it will play on the stage. By the grace of God I've got six sons and one daughter. Three of my sons live in Saudi Arabia. The other three live with me. Whenever there is a fair or I get a commission to perform somewhere, my three sons go with me and work for my party, Royal Bina Putul Nach."

Did he ever face any obstacle or dishonour? Well, during and after the liberation war he could not stage any puppet shows. When the war started Dhan mia was in Bhanuganj in Srimangal performing a show on commission. All on a sudden the local people stopped his show saying that the situation of the country had suddenly worsened. When he came back to Brahmanbaria he found his wife and children fleeing along the river of Titas with others. Then there was the war for independence and naturally the shows were totally stopped. During the two years after liberation Dhan mia continued with his new business of betel leaves. At the end of two years, when a fair was arranged at the Race Course in Dhaka, Dhan mia came back to his real profession again. It was at this fair that he met Mustafa Monwar who introduced him to the television.

Dhan mia then recalled another incident when he faced a kind of social obstacle. "The moulvis (religious leaders) in Sunamganj once tried to stop my show. I then asked them, 'For what reasons do you want to stop my show?' They said, 'You can't sing or dance.' I then said to them, 'Come with me. Come and see my puppets.' When they found that there were no living beings, only inanimate dolls, they said, 'Well, this is all right. This you can show.'

Dhan mia emotionally sang out, 'I only dance the way you make me dance, how is the puppet to blame?' Then he added, "Kishorganj's Hamid bhai's song. I salute him a thousand times. You cannot see the one who makes the puppets dance, and he knew this. We are also like puppets. You are a puppet and I'm a puppet. Those artists … and the songs they wrote … ! The moulvies say that singing is forbidden! All one needed was to understand the deeper meanings behind the words.'

Dhan mia is no longer with us. But his Royal Bina Putul Nach is here. His next generation family members have taken up the steering for running the company. Our sincerest good wishes and blessings are with the heirs of Dhan mia. May God rest his soul in peace!

(Special Thanks to Saimon Zakaria and Nasir Ali Mamun)

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