A collaborative workshop on the ancient art of leather shadow puppetry links cultural beliefs and various countries and languages. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM reports

These shadows have substance. They have the weight of centuries of tradition behind them, and narrate stories that reflect literature and cultural beliefs. Leather shadow puppetry is an ancient art form. And the sticks that manipulate the figures link various countries, languages and cultures. The Crafts Council of India's “Chitra Chaya”, a 10-day collaborative workshop being held at the Lalit Kala Akademi up to February 18 brings together the practitioners and promoters of the art from Thailand, Bali, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. On February 17, a thematic performance of the Ramayana with different scenes presented by different groups will be held at the venue at 6.30 p.m. The art is believed to have travelled from South India to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan and China.

Animal skins were once painted with natural colours. Chemical pigments are now used though synthetic alternatives have not replaced the hide. The songs and dialogue are rendered by the puppeteers to the accompaniment of regional instruments played by musicians. The oil lamp which once helped cast the shadows on the screen has been replaced by electric lights. Stories from the epics and the Puranas are portrayed as well as those of princes and folk heroes. R. Bhanumathi, coordinator of the workshop says an exchange of views and techniques helps infuse fresh energy in the practitioners. The various groups talk of their tradition and the status of their art:

Bali, Indonesia

The Wayang Kulit is the shadow puppet play of this region, says artist Made who is busy painting an intricately-made puppet. The art is popular throughout Bali, adds Nyoman who is a puppeteer, dancer and puppet-maker. The puppeteer, the dalang, has a store of stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Balinese tales and those of animals and birds. Ketut Kodi, teacher, artist and singer says the Ramayana in its Balinese version is the most popular. The CDs too sell well. The women help paint the puppets, adds Noman who teaches the art. “ Indian puppets are bigger when compared to ours, but the work is not so intricate.”

Thailand

“It is a traditional art of Thailand and has been practised in the country for nearly 1,000 years,” says Chinnaphatana S., craft promoter from Thailand who is also advisor in the Department of Industrial Promotion of the Thai government. “Though Buddhists, we believe in the core of Hinduism. The Ramayana — Ramakian — stories are the most popular. Puppetry offers a good medium to satirise present-day politics, and issues such as corruption.” Watee from the University of Thailand belongs to a family of traditional puppeteers. The Nang Ta lung, the leather puppet theatre that features medium- size puppets is more popular then the Nang Yai that features bigger puppets, adds Watee. The government helps the art by organising competitions and providing pensions to artists.

Orissa

“I'm not a traditional puppeteer,” says Gourang Charan Das, director of the Shriram Institute of Shadow Theatre, Orissa who is here with his group. “The leather puppets of Orissa are in black and white with beautifully proportioned figures like patachitra.” Having obtained his Ph.D. in Ravana Chaya, the shadow puppet theatre of Orissa, Das entered the field when Kapila Vatsyayan suggested he do a shadow puppet play on Gandhiji. ‘Bapu Katha' was followed by ‘Nehru Katha' and then ‘Mahalakshmi Katha' (against caste discrimination). “Our group travels everywhere from schools to IITs. I don't believe it is a poor man's art — the text and music are classical,” he says. His wife Savitri works with him and so do Chandramani Sahu and Ranjan Sahu, traditional puppeteers. “There are just two shadow puppet troupes left in Orissa,” says Das.

Andhra Pradesh

Andhra's puppets are the largest in the country — six feet tall while puppets from other States are only half the size. “I can trace the art form, Tolu Bommalata, to generations in my family,” says Kolaiappa whose extended family comprises his group. He is 75 and so is his sister-in-law Veeramma but they are able to manipulate the sticks with dexterity and sing in clear ringing voices. “The art enjoys a better status in Andhra now than it did 20 years ago,” says the veteran while his older cousin Pedda Kolaiappa nods vigorously. “The Government provides us pension and loan. We perform seven versions of the Ramayana. The performances take place at temple festivals, weddings, village fairs and naming ceremonies.”

“We have diversified into making decorative wall pieces and thorans,” adds Kolaiappa's son and his nephew Anjan Rao.

Tamil Nadu

‘Thol Pavai Koothu' is the mother of arts says Muthugopal of the Parameswara group from Theni whose father was a State-award winner. “We perform the Ramayana and stories of Harischandra, Gnana Soundari and Nalla Thangal. We also perform in schools and colleges on AIDS awareness and environmental protection. Muthu Lakshmana Rao, a fourth-generation artist says, “There are far fewer audiences for the performances today — cinema has affected all folk performing art forms. Many of the artistes have taken to manual labour as the returns are so low. We hope the Government will give us pensions as is being done in Orissa and Andhra as we desperately want to continue this ancient art form.”