The performers of Tholubommalata, a dying tradition, enthral villagers with their shadow play.

The little girl’s eyes widen as colours create a moving artwork, mesmerising in the swiftness with which they paint the screen. Her smaller companions jostle for a peek at the energy spilling through the gap in the stretched fabric.

It is a warm summer evening. The sky is an odd mixture of threatening pre-monsoon clouds and sunny spells. Having bumped along the winding roads of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh through red chilli fields and quietly flowing canals, one finally arrives at Yenamandala. The Tholubommalata performers (Sri Venkateswara Leather Puppets, Narasaraopet) are languidly setting up their stage: a rickety cubicle with a white sheet as a screen.

An old man with thick glasses hobbles over to sit on his haunches. A small crowd mills around and a buzz of village chit chat fills the air; just like the expectant hum in a theatre foyer. The corner shop, in anticipation of a good night’s business, stacks up hot chili bhajis, jalebis and bondas. An abrupt explosion of cymbals and loud invocations shake the old man out of his reverie and the chatting crowd quickly gathers in front of the screen.

The story the shadow puppeteers are about to perform is a vignette from the Ramayana – the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana, Hanuman’s recce into Lanka and the subsequent fierce battle.

In the dying light, the colours on the screen turn vivid and the music gains prominence as the village shuts down. The little girl settles down onto the old man’s lap, as both watch, mouths agape. The sun has set and their faces have a warm afterglow. Without the physical division of a stage, spectators surround the screen and watch the puppets as well as the performers.

Sita sits under a marvellously detailed tree, her stillness emotes despondency as the many-headed Ravana approaches her; Hanuman changes his size from small and agile, pirouetting with hope, to large and powerful, dominating the arena.

Behind the screen, 70-year old Kottamma has a surprisingly powerful voice, her hand to ear as she belts out rock star-like. Venkatadasu, her husband, matches the virtuoso singing, while he deftly manipulates the rods.

Intricately cut patterns let in shimmers of light. Phantasmagorical creatures in animated dialogue gambol on the screen. At times the delicacy and softness of movements is barely noticeable and mirrors the gentility of the dialogue, but sometimes the music from within struggles to keep pace with the fervour of movements that seems to shake the screen dangerously. One wonders at the fierce energy, all concentrated in that tiny cubicle.

Surreal world

Just as the village is transported by the grandeur, to another era, another parallel world, dramatic sound effects change the pace: a jester enters the screen weaving jokes into the narrative, and the villagers burst into laughter. And in one incisive ‘Brechtian’ move the audience is abruptly distanced from the story. The performance seems to employ many other ways to deliberately create alienation. At one point, Hanuman’s introspective soliloquy forces the spectators to become detached from the story and they are provoked into critical reflection.

Puppeteers and folk theatre traditionally take the trouble to learn something about their audience, their customs and taboos. At various points in the performance, they speak directly to the audience in a declamatory, rapid and strident manner – breaking the ‘fourth wall’ (an imaginary divide between the audience and performance). By deconstructing boundaries, the audience is invited into the narrative. In many ways, similar folk traditions such as the Chaakyarkoothu from Kerala and the Tamasha from Maharashtra employ techniques that remind the spectator of the constructed nature of the theatrical event, emotionally distancing the audience from the characters. The story is thus seen as a comment on life.

Two-dimensional, shadow puppets are illuminated from behind to cast shadows on a cotton screen. The puppets of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka cast coloured shadows while those of Odisha and Kerala project black, silhouette-like ones. Tholubommalata from Andhra Pradesh, literally means the dance of leather dolls: Tholu – leather, Bomma – dolls, Atta – dance. A central rod holds the body and two thin rods attached to the hands of the puppet for dexterous manipulation. Sometimes two or three puppets represent one character such as Hanuman in this rendering.

Considered the forerunner of motion pictures, shadow puppet theatre existed in remote villages much before the advent of cinema. Troupes typically consist of members of a family and perform at village gatherings, market fairs and school playgrounds. It is magical storytelling – where a handful of performers bring to life a hundred or more mythological characters. The gift that these artists share goes beyond virtuoso singing, a deft hand with instruments and puppets. They have an ability to form stories in song, to place images clearly in the mind’s eye.

The essence of the Ramayana and other narrative traditions have been expressed across a multitude of cultures and artistic renderings. These diverse and sometimes subversive interpretations ensure that we do not think in the singular. Chimamanda Adichie in her TED Talk says, ‘the danger in the single story’ is that it emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar. The dying craft such as shadow puppets will not merely be a loss of artistic heritage but will rob future generations of a plurality of thought and expression. “Like theatre makers all over the world, folk performers are good at holding on to things that work, but they also know how versatile they must be to survive.” (Hollander, Julia. Indian Folk Theatres.Routledge, 2007). But the resilience of these performers is being tested by dwindling patronage and a generation hesitant to follow family tradition.

The lights dim and the sleepy grandfather and his even sleepier grandchild retire hand in hand, sucked into the stillness of the night. The battle is over and good has triumphed. Sita has been rescued and brought back to Ayodhya.