Last month, the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath hosted a lovely nine-day Festival of Leather Puppets where they had a display of their huge antique leather puppetry collection for the first time. When I came to know that besides the display of the original puppets, their reproductions on mugs and calendars were sold during the event – I kicked myself for not knowing. I missed it!
Yesterday when I opened the newspaper in the morning I was thrilled to see the 10-day crafts fair was back at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. I’d written about this last year around this time and we had resolved to visit it every year. We had planned to go today, but a couple of things happened and we have to hope we can make it over the next three-four days. They have a beautiful campus!
The KCP has collected over 3,000 leather puppets in the last five decades, from various villages in south India. It seems that around 700 puppets were showcased. I was stunned to learn that some of the puppets date back to the beginning of the 19th century.
Still, I suppose I should be glad I was able to catch the leather puppetry display at the Metro art center last week.
What is leather puppetry?
Leather puppetry is a traditional art and one of the oldest art forms in India. These are shadow puppets which are flat figures cut out of leather treated to a translucency. They are pressed against the screen and appear as a silhouette or color shadow to the viewers sitting on the other side of the screen.
There are apparently not too many written records of shadow puppets, even though India has a varied tradition of these. Legend has it that by the time the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed, there was some sort of theatrical performance called the “Chhaya Nataka” or shadow drama. Historically, the tradition seems to have existed in Gujarat a thousand years ago from where it migrated to Maharashtra. The wandering clan then spread to other parts of India where the art flourished.
The traditional shadow puppet theater is mostly in the States of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Orissa.
In Karnataka, it is the Togalugombeatta, associated with a community called the Killekyata. Gombe is dolls and aata is dance.
In Andhra Pradesh, it is called the Tolubommalattam
In Kerala, it is the Tolpavakoothu and performed annually at the Bhagavati or Bhadrakali temples in Palghat. The stories center around the Kamban Ramayana.
In Orissa, it is called Ravanchhaya and the puppets have no joints!
In Maharashtra the shadow puppet is called Chamdyacha Bahulye and sadly on the verge of extinction.
What is interesting is, in Orissa, Maharashtra, and Kerala shadow puppets are black in color, while in the Andhra and Karnataka area, they are multicolored and much larger in size.
What are shadow puppets made of?
The shadow puppets used to be made from deerskin. They are also made from goatskin and other hides that absorb color easily. The characters are then drawn on the skin, cut out and decorated with dots, lines and holes. They are painted in different colors, using the mural style of painting.
To prevent the puppet from bending, they are supported with a thin strip of smooth bamboo fixed vertically along the middle on either side of the figure. The arms have movable joints so that they can be manipulated in a specific way. The puppeteer holds the puppet by the lower end of the bamboo strip with one hand, and with a stick in the other hand, they maneuver the puppet to perform the required movements.
The Gombe Atta
The Gombe atta presents stories based on episodes drawn from epics and puranas. The highly dramatic music is a blend of folk and classical style and the shows go on for nine days at a time! The day’s performance goes on for several hours. They start at night and go on till the morning! Needless to say, when the troupe arrives in the village, the locals are overjoyed in anticipation!
Like the Yakshagana, Killekyatharata also has a narrator who sings verses medieval Kannada, which is repeated in easy to understand language by the other puppeteers.
If you are interested in learning more about leather puppetry here is a nice page on shadow puppets
Now let me show you some of the exhibits from the fascinating leather puppetry display. Enjoy! Click photos to see full size. Then click anywhere on your screen to exit.
I am linking up with the lovely Unknown Mami for Sundays In My City, because I enjoy travel. And because she’s wonderful.