The wooden puppetry tradition of Bommalattam is a treat for the senses

The engaging hour-long drama ‘Sita Kalyanam' reached its happy ending when Sita garlanded Rama. Oldies chanted holy verses and kiddies cheered and clapped, forgetting that the characters on stage were puppets and not live actors. Behind the screen, T.S. Murugan and his father T.N. Sankaranathan breathed life into the wooden puppets.

They are the one famous family in the state performing Bommalattam for three generations now. The Kumbakonam troupe Sri Murugan Sangeeta Bommalatta Sabha held the audience under its spell at Kamban Vizha in the city.

“Bommalattam is mentioned in various ancient Tamil literary works as part of Muthamil,” says Murugan. “Many say that puppetry came from Gujarat as Saurashtrians are intensively involved in this. Traditionally the women were into making puppets while the men performed.”

“It is not an easy task as the ‘bhavanai' (expressions) must be brought on to the puppet's face,” says octogenarian Sankaranathan, who has performed Bommalattam since childhood. “Chiselling the features on wood is even more difficult.” Pulling out some Raja Rani puppets from his box, he explains, “We have many characters in a play and each should be different from the other. At times, we also use the same puppet for two roles.”

Also called the ‘Marapavaikoothu', the craft is said to reflect a philosophy of life. Murugan explains: “The whole world is a huge stage and we are all puppets playing our parts in this life-drama. Our strings are in the hands of God. Bommalattam reiterates this concept.”

Most of the themes and plays are taken from mythological stories and puranas. But these days, to adapt to current trends, they also include light-hearted humour sequences. Murugan says, “We even include Rajinikant songs and cinema-like storylines to suit the audience. During marriages we stage comedy dramas as it is enjoyed by all age groups.”

Bommalattam was also a mode of spreading messages in olden days. “It taught moral values and culture to the people from the epics like Ramayana. Even today, messages on social issues can be driven home through the craft, but serials and movies take over.”

To perform puppetry one should also be adept at playing musical instruments, singing, mimicry, and delivering timely dialogues. “Puppetry needs quick coordination of all senses. One should be a multi-tasker,” says Murugan. He plays the mridangam, harmonium, tabla, keyboard and violin. Only traditional Indian musical instruments were earlier used in performances, but these days they also include guitar and saxophone.

The limbs of each puppet are tied with strings and the puppeteer shakes the string from behind the screen to move it. The head string is tied to a ring held around the puppeteer's head. “Whenever the artist moves his head or hands, the dolls would move respectively. Thus, our body movements and expressions are exactly transferred on to the puppets,” says Murugan. “To make the bommai dance, we need to dance from behind the screen.”

The story is told through song and dialogue. “It used to be chaste Tamil but now we use the colloquial tongue too,” chips in Karthikeyan, Murugan's 15-year-old son. “The puppeteer must be able to mimic various voices, as we play both male and female characters. I have promised my father to take forward our family art.”

Though it has a rich past and tradition, Bommalattam is fast vanishing from our society. The troupe rues the dearth of sponsors and programmes. “It used to be a major part of temple festivals and was a sought after entertainment. But the entry of TV and radio has pushed puppetry to the back seat,” says Sankaranathan. “Previously a programme would span across four hours. The fast-paced world today gives us only 45 minutes.”

The troupe signs up nearly ten programmes a month and enjoys a monopoly as there are hardly any puppetry performers left in the state. “It is a laborious job and in turn we get paid meagerly. Lack of support from the government and less income has made artists move away from the craft,” says Murugan. “We get around Rs. 5000 per performance, within which we manage salary for the troupe members, making and mending puppets and also other family expenses.”

Murugan has also tutored a few interested youngsters in puppetry. He says, “There are eager learners but the enthusiasm dips when it comes to wages and the waning demand. Many leave the craft midway and take up lucrative jobs.”

Doll making

Wooden puppets are made from the Kalyana Murungai tree

The dolls are generally 2.5 ft to 4 ft high

Facial features are drawn and painted on puppets

Shiny sequins are used to make king and queen puppets stand out

Credits

Sri Murugan Sangeeta Bommalatta Sabha has performed in Indian, Avarampoo, Pattalam and other movies.

The troupe was honoured by Rajiv Gandhi at Delhi Sojourn Culturals in 1986.

T.N. Sankaranathan was awarded ‘Kalaimamani' by Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Sangam in 1992.

The troupe has performed in national cultural fests in Jaipur, Hyderabad and Calcutta and at Sangeet Natak Academy in Delhi.

Keywords: puppetry