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Leather Puppetry A Delightful Ancient Indian Art Form

by Vidya Sury June 15, 2014 21 comments
Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury

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.

 Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury


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.

 Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury

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.

 Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury


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!

Chamdyacha Bahulye

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.

 Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury

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.

 Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury

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!

 Leather Puppetry Vidya Sury


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.

Unknown Mami
Have a happy week ahead!
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Star Traci June 15, 2014 at 11:55 pm

I love shadow puppetry. I have never seen puppets that were so detailed and beautiful.
Thanks for sharing!
Star Traci recently posted…Sundays in My City #104 – A Little More California in My Life

Vidya Sury June 16, 2014 at 10:09 am

Traci, the performances are so energetic and fun you know! They make lampshades and other decorative stuff out of the leather puppetry art, too.

Thank you! 😀 Loved your video of the fountain!

Birgit June 16, 2014 at 4:05 am

Beautiful artistry! The detail and care that goes into them is amazing!!!! I love the stories behind these shows and the one that is nearly extinct should be detailed in books so it is never forgotten. This is part of culture and heritage that needs to be cared for. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pieces!
Birgit recently posted…On Writing

Vidya Sury June 16, 2014 at 10:48 am

Thank you, Birgit. It is heart-breaking to think that these artists do not receive support. Luckily there are organizations fighting for them. The stories associated with the rituals that go with the performances are wonderful!

bettyl - NZ June 16, 2014 at 7:40 am

That’s quite a detour from what I usually think of puppets. Lovely photos and great information.
bettyl – NZ recently posted…stubborn autumn leaves

Nima Das June 16, 2014 at 8:59 am

loved the beautiful pictures and the rich information you gave. good informative read.

Ananya Kiran June 16, 2014 at 11:54 am

Thanks for sharing it, I have seen shadow drama but not puppets 🙂
Ananya Kiran recently posted…How to upholster a chair !

Shilpa Garg June 16, 2014 at 5:14 pm

This was informative! Have never seen a shadow puppet show and nor the leather puppets! Thanks for sharing, Vidya! 🙂
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Proactive Indian June 16, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Thanks for this informative post!

There are many different art forms in India that need support. Spreading information about them is the first step.
Proactive Indian recently posted…Hair donation for cancer patients: an inspiring true story

Elle June 16, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Wow Vidya, these are amazing. I’ve never heard of leather puppets of this kind before. I just love the way you are able to share the fascinating history of India and making it so fantastically interesting to boot. You are the best. 🙂
Elle recently posted…5 Things You Really Need To Do When Life Sucks

Kalpana Solsi June 16, 2014 at 10:22 pm

I have watched ‘Chhaya Nataka’ or shadow puppetry when I was in a kid. Puppets fascinate children and this was one form of entertainment and education before print media.
Kalpana Solsi recently posted…nights of summer: haiku

Rajlakshmi June 17, 2014 at 11:35 am

I haven’t seen many of these. This post was quite insighful since I love collecting artifacts. It would make a beautiful sovenir.
Rajlakshmi recently posted…The Perfect Groom by Sumeetha Manikandan- Book Review

Sulekha June 17, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Thanks for your informative and picturesque post. I haven’t seen shadow puppets but they look so beautiful in your pictures.The leather puppets look lovely too.

Beloo Mehra June 17, 2014 at 2:37 pm

A wonderfully informative post, Vidya. And great pictures too! There are so many great art forms in our folk traditions throughout the country. Amazing, really! Our ancestors were really creative the way they “educated” common folks through stories, theater, music and puppetry. I am happy some efforts are going on to revive these art forms and traditions in many parts of the country, but surely much more needs to be done. I would love to attend one of the overnight puppet theater shows sometime 🙂
Beloo Mehra recently posted…“All Art is Quite Useless”: What a Wild(e) Idea!

Vinodini Iyer June 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm

There’s so much more to explore of our rich culture, isn’t it? Although I wonder if they still make leather puppets…are they legally allowed to use pure leather?
Thanks for sharing this Vidya. Loved the pictures.
Vinodini Iyer recently posted…Dhobi Ka Kutta | The Washerman’s Dog

Jemima Pett June 18, 2014 at 10:20 pm

I’m another shadow puppetry fan. I remember taking in most of a performance in Jakarta – I would have settled down for the lot but my friends wanted to move on. I bought two puppets as souvenirs – I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten their names – but I included them in the illustration in my first book of the decorations in Lord Mariusz’s salon 🙂

Thanks for the wonderful post, Vidya.
Jemima Pett recently posted…Tuesday haiku – grief

Susan Scott June 19, 2014 at 12:42 am

Thank you for this wonderful post Vidya! So interesting. Puppetry is also so effective as a means of education. The photographs are wonderful.
Susan Scott recently posted…The Approach of the Winter Solstice

Michelle Stanley June 19, 2014 at 4:50 am

Your post is so interesting and informative Vidya. The Indian artwork is beautifully crafted and represents another section of your rich culture. Thanks so much for sharing this. Hugs

Jayanta Tewari June 19, 2014 at 11:54 pm

Thanks for enlightening me on this form of puppet shows. Our rich culture on craft needs some serious thinking to bring them out of the closet…
Jayanta Tewari recently posted…Lalbagh Mango Mela on Father’s Day

Shailaja V June 20, 2014 at 9:20 am

I actually wanted a puppet show to be staged for one of Gy’s birthdays. Never seemed to come to pass. These photos are incredible.
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Debbie June 22, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Such beautiful and intricate work. Incredible photos Vidya! It’s always fascinating to learn more about other cultures and I’m so happy to have met you and the others from India.
Debbie recently posted…PHOTO FRIDAY: SKY


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