Art, leather craft and mythology come together, as we trace the history of handmade puppets in the country.
As a designer who works with traditional artisans across the country, I travel frequently to visit them. What always strikes me is how much art, craft and everything handmade is an integral part of their everyday lives. From the painted homes of Orissa’s Pattachitra artistes to eating in crafted brassware and women doing their daily chores in hand-woven ikat saris, it is so seamlessly a part of them that they don’t know any other way of life.
When I visit leather puppet artistes in Nilmalakunda, a village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, I am greeted by vibrant goat hides—in different shapes and motifs—decorating the entrance of almost every house. This craft has been handed down from generation to generation, and the translucency and vivid colours give the puppets their brilliance, almost jewel-like in the light. So different from my paper sketches! As I sit watching a piece of art take shape, Allu Kullayappa, 86, tells me that leather puppetry in India dates back to the 12th century and our country has a varied tradition of these (see box). But there aren’t many written records.
Historically, chhaya natak (shadow theatre) existed in Gujarat a thousand years ago and then migrated to Maharashtra. Today, traditional shadow puppet theatre can be found in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Orissa. And though the idea behind the shows are similar—mostly based on stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—there are interesting differences between the puppets.
As he puts up a mini-performance for me, with 300-year-old puppets, Kullayappa reminisces about the “good old days” when he and his son, Khandey, used to travel by bullock cart, performing their tales from the epics in different villages. “Till about 20 years ago, there were a lot of takers for our craft and we were constantly on the move. But our grandsons now make lamps shades and other objects, and very few puppets,” he laments.
Into the light
Tolubommalata (Andhra Pradesh): The entire bodies of these life-sized puppets can be manipulated. They are very colourful and mostly have only one eye.
Togalu Gombeyaata (Karnataka): These multicoloured, life-sized puppets have two eyes, with cut-outs around the iris. It’s a dying craft with only a couple of families making these elaborately-painted creations.
Tholpavakoothu (Kerala): The puppets—painted in dark colours, with more cut work and punching detailing—are placed on a platform for the performance. The hands and legs are immovable as it is considered inauspicious for deities to move them.
Chamdyacha Bahuliya (Maharashtra): Painted in dark colours, these puppets—made with a lot of punching of holes (to let the light to shine through), but little painted detailing—are sadly on the verge of extinction.
Ravanchhaya (Orissa): Similar to the Kerala puppets in size and function, these puppets have no joints. They are also made with colours and a lot of punching.