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Damon Murmu, Banam, Chadar Badani

69 year old artist, Damon Murmu of Mahanandapur village in Dakshin Dinajpur became properly acquainted with the unique puppetry form of Chadar Badani only when he was in his late forties.  He had first witnessed this intriguing performance as a young boy and the desire to learn this form stayed dormant for forty years almost. His teacher was a distant uncle, Chhotka Tudu, originally from Dumka, whom he met by chance in 2001. Damon watched with fascination as Chhotka carved small wooden dolls and chose to stay on in his uncle`s village of Parbotipur in Uttar Dinajpur. For an entire year, until Chhotka`s death, Damon worked in the fields as a daily wage labourer along with his uncle during the day, while learning from his uncle, both the craft of Chadar Badani and the songs, in his free time. Side by side, he also learnt how to craft and play a dhodro banam from his talented uncle. He soon got the hang of wood crafting, and with his mentor by his side, he also began to carve unique rahi chaudals, which are palanquins for the bride, essential at Santal weddings. 

Practising constantly, Damon decided he was ready for an audience and started making tentative visits to nearby villages as an itinerant puppeteer. The villagers were thrilled with this unique form of puppetry accompanied by Damon`s songs and gladly rewarded him with rice and vegetables. Gaining confidence, Damon started visiting villages with his puppets more regularly and continues to do this to this day. 

Damon first came to the public eye after his meeting with a local government official, Gokul Das, who gave him numerous opportunities to perform around Dinajpur. He has since visited Kolkata several times for small events showcasing Chadar Badani and has also received a couple of awards in recognition of his art. However, he mostly roams around the villages of Dakshin Dinajpur all year long, barring the monsoon months.  He is out performing, during the traditional Santal festivals of  Dasae and Sohrai in particular, which take place between October and January, singing the songs of the season or the very popular genre of Dong songs (wedding songs). He has also added a few popular Bengali songs to his genre, reflecting what he has imbibed from societies other than his own, possibly from the villages he visits. He is the sole Chadar Badani performer in all of Dinajpur. 

Damon continues to use the puppets he had crafted in 2001 and laments that nobody has wanted to learn the art from him.  It takes him one day to craft each puppet from gamar wood. He had in fact had a gamar tree growing in his own backyard, the wood of which he had used. Unfortunately the tree no longer exists. Damon also showed us an incomplete rahi chaudal that he had begun crafting so beautifully. He has been unable to complete it however, for lack of gamar wood. 

Damon, who is a widower, cultivates a little rice and corn with the help of his daughter and her family, who live with him and help look after him. In the last couple of years, he has been the subject of a documentary film and has been the focus of media attention in Kolkata on several occasions. His meagre earnings notwithstanding, Damon`s passion for his art continued unabated. That is, until the Covid lockdown... 

The lockdown has incapacitated him physically, emotionally and financially. Here`s hoping that this spirited "young" man is back on his feet as soon as possible. 

Damon Murmu : Santal Puppeteer