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Tapas Karmakar, Dang Putul
Address: Village & P.O : Bajarberia;
P.S : Mandir Bajar;
24 Parganas (South) 743395
West Bengal

Forty-eight year old Tapas Karmakar belongs to the 5th generation of a family of traditional rod puppeteers. In fact, Tapas claims that members of his family have been puppeteers for the last 400 years. His father is Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner, Prafulla Karmakar, and his forefathers before him too were masters of the art. His grandfather, Kishori Mohan Karmakar was also a famed chariot (rath) maker of Joynagar in his days. Firmly established as puppet makers par excellence for over a hundred years, most ofthe puppets used by other puppeteers of South 24 Parganas, have usually been made by someone in his family, a practice that continues till today. This may have something to do with the fact that Karmakars were known to be adept with their hands, having been traditionally metal workers and Tapas` family, at some point in time, must have switched occupations.

Tapas says that family elders a few generations ago, had registered themselves as a group of puppeteers, Kalimata Putul Naach party and he has an old 50 paise stamped document to show for it. But unsure of what lay ahead, the registry was not renewed by his father and Tapas too did not venture forth. His grandfather`s generosity and refusal to be paid for his work reduced the family to near penury. However, their poverty notwithstanding, the puppetry continued regardless - father and son persevered in their craft, both in the making and the performing of traditional rod puppets. Tapas remembers that back in the old days, puppeteers would travel miles from one village to another,carrying the heavy wooden puppets on their heads.

As a child, Tapas would follow his father around, often skipping school. Circumstances did not allow him to study beyond class VIII he but his formal apprenticeship under his father began almost 10 years later, when he was 22 years old. Carving the puppet`s head, an art not readily passed down to apprentices, was the most difficult part of the learning and it took him nearly two years before he was given individual charge. His three brothers who have chosen other occupations, assist him every time there is a programme.  Tapas`s wife, Namita too helps him out with the behind the scenes voice acting, as does his twenty four year old son Souvik who, Tapas proudly tells us, has completed his Physics Honours in a college in Kolkata and is now a temporary teacher. Souvik also writes scripts for puppet theatre. 

In spite of financial straits, Tapas remains immersed in his art. He is one of a handful of puppeteers left in his village. Being a traditional rod (wooden) puppet specialist (his ageing father having retired), it helps him make ends meet when he is called to provide puppets for many puppetry workshops held in the district or in Kolkata. As a result, he always has stocks of wood from the Jogu Dumbur tree ready. This wood, he claims, will last for 200 years at least. It is kept soaked in a pond for over a year and then dried under the sun.This makes the wood soft and pliable. A full size tree can yield around 36 puppets.

Tapas has also trained under rod puppeteer Nirapada Mondal learning how to make papier mache puppets for 3 years.

On the months that Tapas gets programmes (a period which usually extends for a few months from Durga Puja onwards), his monthly earnings could go up to Rs 10000, but during the off season, things get difficult.Contributing to his difficulties is that even though he is a registered artist,his group is not registered and therefore ineligible to participate in government programmes and schemes. Further, his group members as individuals too have been unable to get themselves registered as individual artists.  But rod puppetry is not an individual performance. Therefore, for every government programme he gets, he has to enlist the help of other registered performers to put together the half hour social message driven play - on AIDS, female education etc. The government pays each performer (no more than six people) in such a group Rs 1000 daily. But Tapas feels that the group leader who has put in the effort to create and organise the entire show, along with lights, music and rehearsal costs should be given special consideration.

It is the festival season that affords an opportunity for Tapas`s own group to get together. The demand from local clubs and other private organisers is usually for Puranic themes at fairs and festivals. In the villages these programmes must go on for three hours at least to cater to public demand. Where there is a smaller budget, the script is shortened. But in performance spaces where there is a constant and controlled flow of spectators,and not a captive audience as in the village shows, the puppeteers are encouraged to rotate ten-minute capsules.

During the off season, he works his small piece of land on which he grows paddy but chiefly concentrates on making puppets. Besides, he does not find it cost effective to cultivate because hiring labour is expensive. It takes Tapas about 4 days to carve an entire puppet, the head the neck, the body and the jointed arms. He then buys material for the costumes from the markets in Kolkata, which he stitches himself on his sewing machine,assisted by his wife.

To ensure that there is continued demand for his shows, Tapas has, with the active help of his son, tried to modernize his shows, using special lighting and a little technology. Unlike his forefathers who would buy scripts from the market, he writes his own scripts. Nevertheless, he, like many other traditional artists today, struggles to survive. And in this context, he is completely confounded about how non artists have managed to get themselves registered as artists and often receive the lion`s share of the government`s programmes.

For the past ten years or so, families in their village,including Tapas` own family, have also turned to decorative Shola flower making. It remains to be seen how long their specialized art will sustain them.

However, the present coronavirus pandemic and as a result of it, the lockdown of four months (to date), has thrown life in disarray for Tapas, his family and fellow artists. All the programs they were depending upon have been cancelled.  In the hope that somehow, normalcy will be restored in the near future, Tapas has put together a new show based on the coronavirus. He has written a script, crafted new puppets and is hoping to get some additional funds (for dresses and lighting) to put the final finishing touches to the show. He can only continue to do what he knows and loves best - his beloved puppetry.



Tapas Karmakar : Artist at work
Tapas Karmakar : Rod Puppets on display