Dance of the Puppets: Meet the artisans keeping a form of Indian storytelling alive

The popularity of the art form has gone down since the rise of cinema halls and television

Puppets can vary in sizes from 91cm to 183cm. Photo: Sangeetha K A
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Togalu gombeyaata, or "dance of the leather puppets", is a form of shadow puppetry from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Flat leather puppets are pressed against an illuminated screen and accompanied by traditional music and songs for viewers to enjoy on the other side.

Set to narrations from the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, the art form thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries when itinerant artists travelled across villages during religious festivals and fairs. Mimicking portable cinema, the performances transported simple rural folk to a fantastical world of gods, goddesses and mythology.

Over the years, however, the art form’s appeal has eroded thanks to lack of government support and rise of cinema halls and television.

In their quest to bring back togalu gombeyaata, some passionate artists are working tirelessly in the Nimmalakunta village of Andhra Pradesh.

One such artist is Dalavai Chalapathi Rao, 80, who is the winner of several awards, including the 2020 Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. The third-generation leather puppet artisan says that his community belongs to a caste called chitrakar (painters).

“My ancestors migrated from the western state of Maharashtra to this village in the 1950s. My father and grandfather were both famous for their vibrant shows which attracted huge crowds. Their stories revolved around the fascinating lives of gods Rama, Krishna and Ganesha,” he says.

The octogenarian recalls watching his ancestors preparing the puppets’ colours from natural pigments derived from kitchen produce and local foliage. Turmeric paste would be relied upon to provide a yellow hue, while the family’s children would forage for and crush red flowers to colour the puppets with cotton cloth. Meanwhile, leaves would provide shades of green.

Though Rao’s family still uses these natural colours, he adds that synthetic and waterproof methods are increasingly being used by younger members to diversify the colour palette. However, Rao says these puppets aren’t used for shows, but for sale at retail shops and exhibitions.

“No one conducts togalu gombeyaata shows these days. People are glued to their TV screens. This has killed our profession,” he says. He adds Covid-19 dealt another cruel blow to the endangered craft with some of his fellow artist turning to farming to make a living.

With no demand for puppetry shows, Rao and his family have instead pivoted to manufacturing puppets for retailers and exporters.

“We make lampshades, bookmarks and wall hangings. Increasingly, designers also are also incorporating our pieces in jewelry, clothes and handbags. Nearly 150 types of items are made in our village as a part of a cottage industry and marketed locally or exported,” says Rao.

Sumiran Pandya, the co-founder of Gaatha, an online portal that promotes and sells handcrafted items, says enterprises such as Rao's are helping shadow puppeteers sustain themselves.

“Instead of performing, these artists have switched to making handmade decor items, paintings, door hangings and partition screens. There’s a lot of demand for their lampshades, which we stock in over 50 types in various shapes and styles,” he says.

Also trying to sustain the appeal of togalu gombeyaata are dedicated art lovers, such as Sangeetha K A. The teacher works at a local government school in a small town about 45 km away from Mysuru. She conducts workshops to train students in making leather puppets from scratch and learn how to conduct shows.

To popularise the art form among youths, Sangeetha and her students stage free shows across Karnataka in association with the Department of Kannada and Culture. However, she admits the art form’s revival hasn’t been easy because of the intricacies involved in it.

“These artists have to be really skilled in not just manipulating the puppets but also making them. In addition, five people are required to conduct a show including musicians, who play the harmonium and mini cymbals while keeping talam (beat) as well as singers who croon backstage,” says Sangeetha.

Students move the puppets – which can vary in sizes from 91cm to 183cm – on huge straw sticks while dancing along with them admit it is not easy task. “The puppets’ movements require great skill and precision with the larger puppets having up to 13 different movable body joints," says one of the puppetry students. "Fight scenes are especially difficult to execute because of these intricacies."

To make the figures, goat hide is first boiled in hot water, which is infused with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) to get rid of grease and impurities. It is then treated with salt and fixed tightly on wooden frames before being dried under the sun for a week. When the moisture evaporates and the leather develops a sheen, it is painted upon as a canvas.

At this stage, artists sketch designs using chalk, after which it is embellished with needlework embroidery, says Sangeetha. “A sharp blade is used to clean the surface which also polishes it. A bamboo plant stem is used as a pen – called rekni – to outline the designs. Later, holes are punched in the leather, creating patterns for the light to pass through.”

All the pieces are cut intricately so that ear rings, nose rings chains and other ornaments are well defined. Gradually, different characters emerge from the art works – kings, queens, ministers, chieftains, soldiers and servants – and painted on the leather with attractive colours.

Despite the backbreaking work and time that goes into the art form, Sangeetha says that togalu gombeyaata must be nourished and nurtured.

“It is an integral part of Indian heritage," she says. "It must be kept alive for future generations and we’ll do whatever’s possible to not let it become history."

Updated: September 30, 2023, 3:07 AM