Power of the shadow puppets

Master puppeteers at work: Traditional artistes singing backstage during a leather puppet show Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam.  

It is hard to imagine that, there was a time when, there was no TV, no computer or even any board games in the house. There were no malls, no cinema theatres, no eat out joints or even entertainment parks. During these times, way back in the deep historic past of most of India, the only source of entertainment every evening were the puppet shows held at various corners of the village or town. Late in the evening, the show would begin with the beating of the drums and the loud noises made by the puppeteers.

Epic stories

The stories that were portrayed at these shows were generally taken from the great epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat. Being long stories, they would go on for many nights at a stretch. These puppet shows had something in them for everyone – the devout enjoyed the portrayal of divine epics, while the others found comic relief in them. The children however, learnt a lot from these stories, which they also heard from their grandparents.

During the show, each puppet is controlled by a different person, with the help of a bamboo stick attached to the back of the puppet. He sings and speaks for the character he manipulates.

Large puppets have up to 13 movable joints and hence their movements are very intricate. Fight scenes, which make the show interesting, are extremely difficult as they call for many movements.

The raw material used to make these puppets varied from place to place.

The three kinds of puppet shows prevalent in Andhra were the leather shadow puppet shows called Tholu Bommalata, the string puppet shows called Sutram Bommalata and the wooden puppet shows called Koyya Bommalata. Tholu Bommalata was the most popular of these.

Today, puppet shows are held in the village only during festivals. Very few people practise the art these days. The shows have become smaller too, with shorter stories being depicted. The Sangeet Natak Academy invites these artists to perform at some functions.

Leather puppets are still made in the small hamlet of Nimmalakunta, in Anantpur District. Rammana a resident of this village and a puppet maker says, “there are 60 families involved in this art. Puppetry is slowly dying down so we now make show pieces for homes like wall hangings, door panels and lamp shades.”

“We, the artisans sell our wares to handicraft emporiums like Lepakshi and the Central cottage industries. We also export some of our stuff through export houses,” adds Mr Rammana.

For more information on this dying art one can contact Rammana at 09908841847. One can place an order for these craft items and once ready they will be home delivered.

Traditionally, deer skin was used to make puppets, but soon it was replaced by goat and sheep hide soaked in water mixed with Kakada

powder, a local vegetable dye. After the leather assumes a light brown colour and the texture is smooth enough it is used for making puppets.

First a design is drawn on the skin, using an outlining hand brush, thereafter the colours are filled in. Vegetable dyes are generally used, however, with time, chemical dyes have also found a place in this craft. What makes these puppets very attractive is the

perforation done at various places, which depicts golden jewelry, when yellow light passes through the little holes.

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 8:57:49 PM |

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