Shadow puppets

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Shadow puppetry in IndiaBold text


Shadow puppets have an interesting genesis. As one of the oldest art forms of India, they are derived from the visual art performances like the Chitra Katha (scroll paintings) often the south India, the Jadano Pat (rolled painting) of Bengal, the Chitrakathi (single paintings) of Maharashtra, Yampat (scroll paintings) of Bihar and the Phad (panel painting) of Rajasthan. These puppets, made with leather, are treasured in much folklore and mentioned in the Puranas and the Jatakas. It would appear that the shadow puppets, as a form of theatre, evolved from the visual dramatisation given to cut-out figures.

Ravana, Ravanachhaya

Different styles of leather shadow puppets are found in India in different regions. Some are translucent to opaque, some small to medium-sized, and some black-and-white or coloured. Many of the puppets represent gods, goddesses and Apsaras (celestial beings), which are held in high esteem and stored separately from the demon-puppets.

Historically, the tradition of Chhaya Natak (shadow theatre) seemed to have existed in Gujarat a thousand years ago and migrated to Maharashtra. It was given high patronage by the local potentates there and allowed settlements in different regions. The clan, which was a wandering tribe, spread their art as they migrated to the further south, performing the shadow plays of Maharashtra. Another clan of the original tribe migrated to Karnataka, taking their art form with them. The art flourished throughout the later centuries and was rejuvenated under the royal patronage of various rulers in these regions.

The staples of the shadow puppet theatre are epics, used as the medium of audio-visual education blended with entertainment over the centuries. The themes of Mahabharata and Ramayana, imbued with religious thought as well as social ethics, are narrated through select episodes in the course of a single night. The entire epic comes for a marathon narrative in its sequence of events over several successive nights. The philosophy conveyed is: the good overpowering the evil and the gods never mixing with the evil demons.

The shadow shows invariably begin with an invocation to the Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, who is treated as the patron God of all puppets. Often Saraswati, the goddess of learning finds a place in the opening prayer, to the accompaniment of Bramha, the creator of the universe, who conducts the dance-music. The show remains mostly a family affair confined to a particular sect, although, others can join, as in recent times. The female members are generally not inducted as puppeteers though children are encouraged to learn in many clans. The village-temple committees and the heads of the village are usually the patrons of the art. The occasions of holding the theatres are the village fairs and festivals. The casting of the shadow on the screen is by the oil lamp, slowly getting replaced by the electric light. The memorised dialogues are recited or sung by the leader (and repeated by the chorus) in a stylised manner. The musicians are separate from the puppeteers and use entirely the regional instruments. The music is normally based on the traditional ragas or inspired by the folk tunes. The stories seldom depart from the epic tradition and do not assimilate contemporary themes.

Interestingly, a single shadow puppet doubles up for other roles such as Laxmana in the Ramayana coming back as Arjuna of the Mahabharata. Again, the same epic character may be represented through several puppets according to the story or the situation, such as the flying Hanumana, gradually getting smaller, approaching the other coast of the sea, or the royal Rama being different from the Rama in exile. The back-stage arrangement of the puppets is always sequential and new puppets are inducted along with a ritual. There are different animal characters as well, apart from the properties like trees, chariots, bows and arrows, and thrones. Each regional style has its own stock characters to create comic situations.

The sculptures and friezes of the regional temples in their original form usually inspire the figures of the puppets. New puppets, of course, derive their design from the older puppets. The base material for making these puppets is the animal hide: mainly the goat or the deer, depending on the regional availability. The shadow screen is erected in a direction prescribed in the rituals. In earlier days, the colouring was done with vegetable pigments made by the puppeteers themselves, getting replaced by the mineral colours commercially available at present. The puppets, stored in bamboo boxes or tin boxes, have a long life.

The shadow puppets are very widely prevalent in the south India in all the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the coastal areas. Besides, these are found in the states of Maharashtra and Orissa.

ANDHRA PRADESH The shadow plays are known as Tholu Bommalatta (Tholu meaning leather). There are puppeteers whose genealogy go back to ten to eleven generations, and refer not merely to their spread in Andhra under the Satvahana and Chalukya dynasties, but also to the islands of Java, under the control of Pallava and Kakatia kings in the sixth century. The leather puppetry of South India seems to have gone to Indonesia, Burma, Siam, Malaya, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, China and other South Asian countries: to earn name and fame for the Indian art.

Tholu Bommalatta The shadow puppet is conducted in open air as a free show. Space is left from the ground to knee height and at that height, one dhoti (White cloth) is tied between two poles and the second dhoti joined above the first, with the help of date-palm thorns. A pole is also fixed in the middle of the screen for support. Other three sides are made from gunny bags and have an exit made in the back wall of the room. Behind the screen, two wooden planks are placed on the ground: one upon the other for sound effect. When characters talk harshly with each other or one character kicks another or two characters fight with each other, puppeteers stamp with their feet on the wooden plank. Generally, six members operate in a group, including two women. Puppeteers change their voices according to characters. The duration of the shows is usually six to eight hours.

Behind the stage, two puppeteers manipulate the puppets. One manipulates the head and the other the hands. Sometimes, Rama and Lakshmana have moustaches like Mughal characters or they may wear costumes as in Yakshagana (folk play). It is not necessary that Rama be in blue colour. Hanumana is black or red, Ravana red and the other demons are black. They use light amber, yellow, orange and brown shades for women. Characteristically, the puppets come as single figures and appear in profile. Only Ravana has the front face to show his ten heads. Main characters have joints on head, neck, shoulders, elbow and wrists. A character like Arjuna, can sit and has joints on knees. There are two comic characters: Killekyatha and Bangaraku. The dancer puppet has extra joints at wrists and the head, which is separately attached to a stick and connected with the main body by a loose string. The feet are attached to the skirt. A maximum of three people can manipulate at a time. They process the leather for two days to make it translucent, then draw and cut the figure and lastly make ornamentation by making holes on the figure and colouring. Puppets in Nellore district are the biggest in the world, being more than 2 metres high.

The stage is 21 x 6 x 10 feet. The screen is 8 x 6 feet to 12 x 8 feet and leans 1.5 feet forward. They perform nine days consecutively during Mahashivaratri: from twilight to dawn. Manipulators perform dance-steps in Kuchipudi style, wearing the bells. There are three musicians in a group. They play Mridangam, Jalor, Mukhaveena, harmonium and cymbal. Musicians sit behind the curtain. The light is kept 2 feet from the screen and high enough so that the light can directly come to the screen. They have a maximum of fifteen puppets, while thirty puppets make a set.


Leather puppet of Karnataka is called Togalu Gombeatta (Togalu meaning leather, Gombe meaning doll and Atta meaning dance). They received royal patronage from Rashtrakutas, Pallavas, Kadambas, Chalukyas, Hoysalas and Kothapur kingdoms. There are more than forty types of composed scenes where as many as ten puppets are in a scene: with women churning butter, farmers, washer men, hair-cutters, juggling puppets, boxing puppets, etc. and with costumes dating back to the Mughal era.

Hanuman, Togalu Gombeyatta

The character of Rama wears an upper garment and a striped lower piece, with a crown on head. The puppets belong to different categories, such as, divinities and their carrier animals; demons and giants; human figures, such as, princes, princesses, nobles, functionary priests, attendants, etc.; rank-holders among the soldier-apes; comic figures; other animals; trees and plants; and the sun and moon. Puppets are of different sizes according to the ranks and importance. Killekyata (a jet-black puppet) and Bangarakka are mischievous stock characters important for the show.Two dhotis are stretched tightly across the four bamboo poles, with the puppets pinned on the screen with palm-thorns or stuck along the lower supporting bamboo of the screen-frame.

The show continues for nine days at a stretch. A stage is constructed in the middle of the village, 9 x 6 x 5 feet high. Clay, bronze and iron lamp are used with castor oil.

There is a minimum of six to eight people in a group. All puppeteers are literate and have farming as their occupation. People believe that a show brings long life to their cattle and protects them from draught and other natural calamities. Musicians are four to five in a group, who sit behind the screen and use Madalam, Harmonium, Tal, cymbal and Mukhabeena as instruments. They perform from epics and legends. Each group has one hundred to five hundred puppets and some groups are more than five hundred years old. They need a minimum of eighty puppets and 200 to 250 puppets to make a set. The maximum size of the puppet is 4 x 3 feet and the minimum is 6 x 3 inches. Puppets have joints on neck, shoulders, elbows, waists and hips, and the style is taken from the temples of Chalukya, Vijaynagar and Haysala. Red, blue, green and black colours are used for the puppets. Manipulation is done while sitting. One man can manipulate 2 to 3 puppets at a time, and 4 to 5 persons can manipulate simultaneously. These puppets, which have joint on limbs, are manipulated by thin bamboo-rods. Most of the puppets have two eyes in profile and beautifully perforated for putting on the ornaments of puppets. The scenes are of king's court, queen's chamber, hunting scene of king, deer stuck with an arrow, etc. Occasionally social scenes are also used within the composite scene.

KERALA Shadow puppet of Kerala is called Thol Pava Koothu (Thol meaning leather). One group has generally 8 members. The group leader, usually very knowledgeable, is called Pullavar or Pandit (scholar). Puppeteers live only in Kochi, Palghat and Trichur districts. The performance is connected with temple rituals and goes for 7 to 21 days at a stretch. Villagers believe that Devi Kali watches the performance, especially the scene of Ravana Badh, because she was busy killing the demon Darika when it actually happened. Puppeteers, originally from Tamil Nadu, recite verses and sing in Tamil, and give explanation in Malayam in performance. They only follow Ramayana, written by poet Kamba 500 years ago. Pullavar sings the story and explains it through questions and answers along with arguments and counter-arguments.

Thol Pava Koothu

The group performs on a permanent stage called Koothu Medon or Koothu Mandapam. The stage is about 45 feet long, 15 feet deep and 10 feet high. Thorns attach puppets, when still on the screen. Sometimes they erect a temporary stage in front of the Kali temple. Such a stage is 42 x 12 x 8 feet. A black curtain is stitched along with a white curtain; signifying upper portion as the sky and lower portion as the earth. The temple festival begins by hoisting a flag on the temple and afterwards they fix the screen. At the end of the festival, they remove the screen, to the accompaniment of fireworks. There is a 42-feet bamboo pole, kept one foot behind the screen and 21 lamps are kept at a distance of 2 feet from each other, using coconut shells and oil for the lamps. Four musicians sit right behind the screen. They use Kali(drum), Para (small drum), cymbal, flute. Every play has a stock character Kindakkaranm (man with an umbrella) and others. A play starts with invocation of Ganesh, and prayer to Vishnu and Saraswati. The show begins from Aranyakandya for the 14-day performance and from Balkanda for the 21-day performance. Performance ends with the incarnation of Rama and Sita. Women do not take part.

After the killing of Ravana by Rama, the play is halt for one or two days, when stage-floor and screen are washed from desecration by the bloodshed. The maximum size of a puppet is 30 x 25 inches and the minimum is 6 x 5 inches. The puppets have joints on neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists. Generally, each puppet has a joint in one hand, barring the fighting puppets of Rama and Ravana who have joints on both hands. The leather thread joins the two portions. The style is taken from the temple-relief of north Kerala. Puppeteers manipulate by standing. In the fighting scene, the second puppeteer manipulates the weapons like arrows and bows. Hanumana and men have two eyes in profile, while both Ravana and Brahma have front faces. Rama is deep blue and Sita is golden brown. Puppets wear ornaments and dress like Kathakali dancers.


Shadow puppet of Tamil Nadu is called Tholu Bommalattam (Tholu meaning leather). It is the same as in Andhra and coloured. There are very few puppeteers who perform regularly.

Thol Pava Koothu MAHARASHTRA The shadow puppet of Maharashtra is called Chamdyacha Bahuliya(Chamdyacha meaning leather) and is mostly seen in the famous village of Pinguli on the border of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. Every group has one leader, one helper and two musicians. Only the 'Thakore' community practises this art. Their profession is fishing and harvesting.

They maintain a permanent stage in the village, but stages can be erected in temples and religious places. The screen is 4 x 5x 3 feet; one iron lamp hangs behind the screen. The group leader and the musicians speak the dialogue. They only perform Valmiki Ramayana, starting from Panchavati episode to Ravaan Badha. Dholak and Wata (brass instrument) are used as instruments and musicians sit both sides of the screen.

A minimum of 65 puppets is needed. Generally, they split a stick at the centre to hold the puppet and there is no other joint. Puppeteers hold the puppet in left hand and manipulate by right hand while seated. The maximum size of a puppet is 35 x 27 cms. and the minimum is 11 x 8.5 cms. During the performance, the dancer puppet performs first in the court of Indra (king of heaven) accompanying with Pakhwaj player and Jodiwala. Then comes Haridas as narrator, before the play starts. The coloured shadow puppets made of leather are paper-thin and have no perforation. They use Paithan style of decoration, with men having moustaches and beards with costumes like the Mughals.

ORISSA The Shadow puppet of Orissa is called Ravana Chhaya (Chhaya meaning shadow). They derive the name from the evil king Ravana as they believe that Rama, with his spiritual aura, casts no shadow. Only one troupe is found at Dhenkanal district. The group has eight persons including four musicians. The show is presented in Oriya language.

Ravana Chhaya The stage is erected in a field or street. The dimensions are 8 x 5 feet. The screen is attached with straw mats that conceal the bottom to hide the manipulator. The size of the screen is 8 x 4 feet. Earthen lamps are kept on the wooden stand 3 feet from the screen. The main singer or interpreter is called Gayak and they follow Bichitra Ramayana written in Oriya in early eighteenth century. Musical instruments are Khanjari (a type of tamborine), Ramtali (wooden castanets) and Kubuji (brass cymbal). Musicians sit on the right side of the stage. The interpreter speaks the improvised dialogue. The group has 300 to 350 puppets. The barber puppet, called Bhandari, appears first with his grandson. Puppets are made from deerskin, and cast black and white shadow. Puppets are 4 inches to 2 feet high, 1.5 feet in breadth and approximately 3mm thick. Puppets have no joints and one spilt bamboo-stick runs down the centre of the puppet, held by the puppeteer. Ravana is much larger than other puppets.

Puppeteers manipulate by sitting and one can manipulate two puppets at a time. Sometimes they use a composite set like Sita sitting in Ashok Vatika (Forest) or in chariot.

CONCLUSION Shadow puppeteers of India still follow traditions and observe many customs connected with ritualistic religion. It is interesting to observe that shadow puppeteers in general, and those from Kerala in particular, offer comments on diverse topics of religion and philosophy, using a fairly complex corpus of literature.