A new dawn for leather puppetry in the Godavari region

The Sangeet Natak Akademi began the revival of leather puppetry, surviving by the sacred Godavari river for over a century, by grooming young disciples through ‘Kala Diksha’ initiative that aims at preserving traditional arts and crafts in India.

Updated - March 30, 2024 07:14 am IST

Published - March 30, 2024 07:13 am IST - MADHAVAPATNAM (KAKINADA DT)

A folk art from Madhavapatnam village near Kakinada in East Godavari district. A team presents stories from epics with the help of leather puppets.

A folk art from Madhavapatnam village near Kakinada in East Godavari district. A team presents stories from epics with the help of leather puppets. | Photo Credit: C.V. Subrahmanyam


The Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s premier academy of music, dance and drama, has attempted to revive ancient theatre performance of leather puppetrythat is on the brink of extinction in the Godavari region of Andhra Pradesh. In recent years, leather puppetry survived in the Godavari region despite scores of puppeteer families have embraced another faith and quit their tradition.

Of the nearly 300 families belonging to the leather puppetry, barely 60 performers are left now in the Madhavapatnam panchayat near Kakinada city. Around 150 families have quit puppetry after they embraced a new faith. 

A century ago, the leather puppeteers migrated from Maharashtra and settled in Madhavapatnam panchayat. Very few families reside in areas surrounding the Kakinada city — Karapa, Mandapeta, and Peddapuram in the erstwhile East Godavari district. 

In December 2023, Sangeet Natak Akademy designated Madhavapatnam-based puppeteer Thota Balakrishna to revive leather puppetry by handing over the theatre tradition to the next generation through the ‘Guru-Sishya Parampara’ (teacher-disciple tradition) as part of the ‘Kala Diksha’ initiative. The revival of puppetry is in the non-formal method of training. Preservation of traditional arts is the prime aim of Kala Diksha.

“The training should be done in non-formal and personalised atmosphere in Guru-Sishya parampara, which has been the hallmark of our ancient Sanatana tradition,” says Raju Das, secretary, Sangeet Natak Akademi in his letter to Balakrishna. 

Ten students have enrolled to be groomed as budding leather puppeteers under ‘Kala Diksha’. On March 1, the four-month training programme began in Madhavapatnam under the mentorship of Balakrishna. 

The girls who evinced interest to become puppeteers are Thota Indu, Thota Keerthi, Anaparthy Akshaya and Thota Jhansi Harshitha. All of them are natives of Madhavapatnam, which has less than a dozen women puppeteers. 

“The intensive training will be given for four months in a single play, Sundarakanda. The other plays, Vinayaka Vijayam and Virat Parvam, will also be taught in the next two phases. Each of the 10 aspirants will be groomed to become professional puppeteers,” says Balakrishna. 

Carnatic vocalist Krishnamacharyulu introduced the students to basic ragas while puppeteer Thota Ganapathi is teaching nuances in singing traditions in leather puppetry. The aspirants are being taught twice a week on the screen. The unique feature of leathery puppetry is that there will be no prescribed text available in print format. It is to be learnt directly from the guru and remembered forever.

In leather puppetry, academic qualification is not mandatory, and many stalwarts and yesteryear performers in the Godavari region were unlettered. The present group of 10 disciples are studying and aspire to pursue higher education apart from learning their family’s traditional art form — leather puppetry. 

“The Sangeet Natak Akademi’s initiative to revive leather puppetry gave new hope to keep our theatre tradition alive. I am blessed to be the instrument to pass on the tradition to the next generation through Kala Diksha,” says Balakrishna.

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