Writer M. Harikrishnan's documentary chronicles the life of shadow puppeteer Ammapettai Ganesan

“It's more special performing amidst shadows than in light,” says Ammapettai Ganesan in the documentary “Vidhaithavasam”, conceptualised and directed by writer M. Harikrishnan.

Ganesan is a shadow puppeteer, street-theatre actor and katta bommalattam artist from Ammapettai, a town in Erode district. “Vidhaithavasam” gives a generous peek into the life of the artist and the art forms he has embraced since childhood.

The documentary opens with a scene from the Ramayanam. We see a white screen, illuminated with a bulb from above, and a clown-puppet which furiously dances to the tunes of the pi-pi, cymbals and maththalam. Ganesan wraps up the first song of the act and says, “Kadhai arambam”. The frame shifts, the scene changes, and there he is, deeply immersed in the act of making a shadow puppet.

Family tradition

As he meticulously rubs erukkam paal over goat skin, he says, “As members of the Koravan community, my grandfather and his kin faced poverty and unemployment during the British regime. One day, a travelling bommakoothu artist came to my grandfather's village. My thatha was fascinated by the art form and wanted to learn it. But the artist was unwilling to teach him.” He continues: “My grandfather and his friends didn't get dejected. They designed puppets out of palm leaves, used vessels as instruments and began to put up shows in our village. People would come to see his group perform, and some of them even learnt the art from him.” Ganesan's story is narrated as he works with his puppets and paints, and tailors costumes. There are periodic pauses in the story, as the director allows Ganesan's puppets to do the talking. Scenes from the Kishkintha Kandam, anecdotes from Harichandra's life and those from the Mahabharatha interspersed with the narrative give the viewer a chance to get a feel of rural art forms such as thorpaavai, therukoothu and katta bommalattam.

A puppet comes alive

Then, there are scenes that showcase the work that goes on back stage during a performance. We see puppets of Rama and Seetha being made, holes being drilled on them, wooden puppets being painted and sequins being sewn onto costumes. We also get to see Ganesan deftly pulling the strings to breathe life into the goat-skin puppets and wooden dolls.

With a shadow puppeteer for a father and a street theatre artist for a mother, Ganesan grew up listening to the sounds of the maththalam and salangai, learning viruttams and adavus, and had puppets and a harmonium for playthings. At the age of seven, he took up shadow puppetry to help his father during performances. By the time he turned 18, he formed his own troupe and went around different villages putting up thorpavai and therukoothu shows.

Why “Vidhaithavasam”? Says director M. Harikrishnan: “In villages, farmers usually take a seed out of the first harvest and protect it till the next. They wouldn't trade it for anything. This tradition is called Vidhaithavasam. Ganesan does something similar with rural art forms. It's up to us to nurture and enrich them.”

Custodian of art

A couple of other street-theatre artists and shadow puppeteers also talk about Ammapettai Ganesan in the documentary. Says Hemanathan, assistant director, Department of Art and Culture, Government of Tamil Nadu: “Two years ago, Kalari Heritage and Charitable Trust (run by Harikrishnan) had organised a naatuppura kalai vizha that featured Ammapettai Ganesan's shadow puppetry. Within a few minutes, I knew he is one of the best artists our State has seen.Last year, he was awarded the district-level ‘Kalainanmani' title.”

Soon, the scene shifts to show a pensive Ganesan, travelling on a truck amidst vegetables, riding away into the sunset.

“Vidhaithavasam” will be screened in the city on Sunday at 10.30 a.m. at Kovai Ilakkiya Sandhippu, Sibi IAS Academy (Near Periyar Silai), Gandhipuram. For details, call: 99427-88486. The documentary is available for sale and the DVD is priced at Rs. 125. For details, call: 96775-20060 or 98946-05371.