The patronized folk art which is believed to have originated in 200BC during the rule of Satavahana dynasty is Leather Puppetry. Born in the rich region of Andhra Pradesh, the leather puppets are intimately linked to the state’s unique traditional folk and cultural expression. “Tholu Bommalata” (dance of leather dolls) is one of the oldest surviving shadow puppet theatres in the world, fashioned of translucent colored leather, projected on a small screen.
As soon as the lights go off, a loud voice, along with classical music and different characters leap onto the white screen. The show of Tholu Bommalata has begun. Deeply connected with spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, this shadow puppetry mainly depicts narratives from epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, blending them with local customs, social issues and passing culture from one generation to another to keep this form alive. The storytellers skillfully narrate the story and sing ballads which is quite commendable considering the synchronization required in maintaining the rhythm of both- the story and puppet movements.
BEHIND THE SCENES
It’s the end product that captivates us towards it, but what we tend to overlook is the effort that artists have put into the making of that piece. Leather puppets are made from goatskin, that is transformed into a translucent parchment through an arduous process of washing and cleaning. After it is completely clean, the hide is marked out with the outlines of the figures of the puppets, punching holes in between, as the numerous little windows create a sparkling effect when held against light, adding to the beauty and attraction of the show.
“The outlines are then marked with black ink using a bamboo nib. After this, the leather is colored in vibrant hues such as red, green, yellow, and more. To make puppets, individual parts, or organs of the puppet, like legs, arms, or head, are cut and then stitched together. The puppet is then mounted on sticks and bound with ropes to facilitate free movement. An average puppet takes up to four days to complete and a considerable amount of talent as well.”
PEOPLE BEHIND THE SURVIVAL OF THE ART
Meet puppeteer Sindhe Sriramulu and his team from Nimmalakunta, a village in Dharmavaram mandal in Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh, are perhaps the last one struggling to keep the art form alive. Leather Puppetry is in Sriramulu’s blood as his family has been in it for four generations and is perhaps the last one struggling to keep the art form alive.
Struggling to make enough from puppet shows, the puppeteers have diversified into other means of earning a living. Many of them now make lampshades, wall hangings, paintings, and bookmarks with goatskin. In Nimmalakunta, about 40 families are engaged in the manufacturing of lampshades and puppets. But only 10 families, at most 15 families can afford to put up puppet shows.
Their major source of income comes from the sale of leather décor products and from workshops, for those who conduct. Tholu Bommalata is part of their family legacy, their identity. But the change in the concept of entertainment has drastically changed over the years. Which has ultimately resulted in making it difficult for them to make a living out of it.
Where, the original art of Tholu Bommalata, shadow puppetry has continued to survive in rural areas of several states, the ecommerce stores have provided a platform for the artists to showcase their talent and reach the global audience.