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Shadow Theatre in India

Shadow theatre existed in India as early as the 6th century B.C. and has since then provided entertainment in various parts of rural India. The shadow puppet cut form a piece of flat rawhide or stiff parchment has been popular in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, the shadow puppets are black and white, those of Andhra and Karnataka are multi-coloured and much bigger in size. The epics ‘ Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ with their innumerable regional variants of story, text, singing , instrumental accompaniment and form of execution have dominated the shadow theatre of India.

‘Tolu Bommalata,’ the name given to the shadow theatre of Andhra Pradesh, probably has the same ancestry as the Javanese shadow play ‘Wayang’. Bommalatams, or the leather puppets are cut out of highly seasoned and translucent deer or goat skin richly painted in attractive colours. Different parts of the body are separately cut and then tied to each other to allow free movement. The design mainly consists of jewellery and clothing. This is done by perforating small designs on the skin with the help of sharp chisels. The colouring of the puppets is the most elaborate process in the preparation of the puppet figures and the designs of the puppets are largely based on the traditional Puranic figures seen in temple sculpture and idols. Some of the oldest puppet now available resemble the portraits of the kings and queens and courtiers of the 18th century, especially the Nayaka kings.

The sizes of the Andhra Pradesh puppet figures range between five feet by three feet and their shadows are gigantic. Usually 100 to 110 puppet figures are used for performing both the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories. Every puppet is held aloft by a stick from below and the limbs are manipulated by means of strings. A white screen is stretched across the place of performance, a little above the head of the puppeteers who sit behind. Bright light is thrown from behind the puppets so as to project their shadows on the curtain to be seen by the spectators on the other side. The colours come out beautifully and figures are magnified or shortened by varying the distance between thelight and the puppets. ‘Tolu Bommalata’ is a composite art containing all the fine arts in it, music, sculpture and painting.

The battle scenes and duels in the Andhra shadow show are very absorbing. During the fights the entire manipulative style changes. The simulation of a filght is achieved by thrusting two puppets against each other. This is further accentuated by the background nose and beating of the ‘Mridangam’ or drum at its loudest. Another instrument called a ‘Pavada’ made of a hollow bone of a goat, dried and cleaned is blown during these fights. By clamping a foot on two wooden bars of a third instrument, a noise similar to that of exchanging blows emanates, which adds to the furore and noisy chaos that is expected of a bitter fight.

‘Tholpava Kutto,’ the shadow theatre of Kerala unlike Kathakali, remains unfamiliar to a very large section of the population of Kerala for its provenance is a small area around Palghat district. The play is an all-night open-air function taking as many as forty-one nights for an exhaustive treatment. The duration these days has however been considerably reduced. These dramas form part of the festivities of the spring festivities of the spring festival in February, March and April. The shadow puppet stage in Kerala is a necessary adjunct to religious life and is as such associated with temple festivals. The text is from the Tamil Ramayana of Khambar and the performers of the shadow theatre form a special community called ‘Pulavar’. Fifty years ago a considerable number of Pulavar families existed, the men being skilled performer, text reciters and producers of figures for the shadow plays. Today only a handful remain. All Pulavars and their assistants from other communities are being forced to earn their livelihood not only by presenting shadow plays but by other occupations also since the performing season lasts only from January to May. The situation is the same in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa.

The innumerable chinks in the puppet figures emphasise the silhouette picture or shadow cast on the white screen. They are generally small, the largest being about two and a half feet. The screen consists of a piece of white cloth about 18 yads in length and five feet in width over a platform wall of three to four feet in height screening the puppeteers. Behind the screen on a split bamboo are the foot lights, 41 in number. All the puppets have wooden handles to facilitate manipulation. The screen is divided by a wooden pole into two parts, the right side reserved for the noble characters of the play like Rama and Sita, land the left for the evil characters like Ravana.

Temple rituals and ceremonies precede the commencement of the show each night. The proceedings are invested with a certain sense of mystery and solemnity almost weird. After the preliminaries which take a couple of hours, the story proper starts and the puppets become dynamic though their movements are few and restricted. The story-teller is expected to be a sort of encyclopaedist, learned in the scriptures – Vedas, Upanishads, Puransas and Itihasas, even medicine, astronomy and politics. The dialogue and verses are chanted in a peculiar way that suggests wailing. By modulation the trained voices of the story tellers create in the audience the exact aesthetic emotion desired and a sense of the supernatural. There are some very dramatic moments. A realistic and startling effect is achieved when Sita enters the flames to prove her chastity. Leaping camphor flames cast lurid shadows on the screen as she emerges unscathed, resplendent in all her glory.

A rare form of shadow theatre of the eastern state of Orissa ‘Ravan Chhaya’ is probably the most ancient of the different styles of the shadows have an unmistakable primitive quality and the performance is the least sophisticated. Unfortunately it is in the last phase of graying out and unless some urgent steps are taken, it may soon fade into oblivion. Today Ravan Chhaya Samsad of village Odash in Dhenkanal district is the only group surviving in Orissa. Ravan Chhaya draws exclusively upon the Rama lengend and used the lyrics from Vichitra Ramayana written by Viswanath Khuntia, a medieval Oriya poet.

Unlike the Bommalatams of Andhra and the puppets of Kerala which have one jointed hand the Ravan Chhaya puppets have absolutely no jointed limbs. The puppets are cut imaginatively to give a characteristically posed outline and perforated to delineate the fashioning of the clothes and accessories. There are also figures for props such as trees, mountains, chariots, arrows, missiles, palanquins and others for creating an appropriate setting. Roughly 700 puppet figures are required for a complete show which is performed over a period of seven nights. There are some prized moments during the show like that of Hanuman uprooting the shadow trees of the shadowy Madhuvan or the magnificent Rama fighting with Ravana with the exchange of shadow arrows flashing across the screen like dark lightning. One is struck by the dramatic vigour of the show though the shadows are extremely lyrical. The ‘Soul’ of the performance is the music and the style of singing a combination of the folk and classical Odissi traditions. The accompaniment to the vocal music is provided by the ‘Khanjani’, a popular percussion instrument in rural Orissa and the ‘Daskathi’ a type of castanet capable of producing rhythmic patterns of amazing variety and of very fast tempo.

There are some interesting conventions too. After a puppet figure is complete, a sort of ‘puja’ is performed to breathe ‘life into it and when is finally dies of ageing or accidentally gets torn, it is taken to a river at sunset amidst the chanting of mantras and respectfully immersed.

To see these dramas of sound and shadow is to realize their magnificence, but if nothing is immediately done to save them they will soon be a thing of the past.