Shadow Tales

Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore, 20 March 2005

SHADOW puppetry is one of those ancient art forms that stands little chance of  making it through the modern era. Like the remnants of other traditional forms of entertainment, leather puppets from our region will remain ancient relics confined to tourist or museum spaces unless they are integrated into contemporary educational or art practice.

Karnataka has its own tradition of leather puppetry, and it varies from region to region.’ Togalu gombe aata’, as it is called, is traditionally performed by a community called the Killekyathas. The families of this community were nomadic and would, on invitation go to a village at harvest or festival time and perform puppet shows. It is still a belief that if the puppet show is performed, the place will get rain.

Stories like Babruvahana , Ramayana , Kurukshetra , Airavana, Mairavana etc are very popular. Although most of the stories are classical, the contentof the puppet show caters to the tastes of all villagers. Humour, crass jokes, and fighting are all part of the fare. Songs and music blend in with the tale being told; the music and singing are all done by the family themselves. Musical instruments like the tanige shruthi (tune box), and the pavali are used as accompaniments.

Killekyatha means mischievous imp, and the community earns this name because of its ability to poke fun at people by way of their art. But the Killekayathas enjoy a special status in villages; they are allowed to enter the temples although they do not belong to the uppercaste and are revered because they safeguard this tradition. One of the most famous and talented of these puppeteers was the late Hombayya who with his family had performed not just across the country but also at places abroad.

The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore has a vast collection of leather puppets from various provinces all over the state. Professor M S Nanjunda Rao, its founder and his colleagues have authored a book on the art. In Chitrakala Parishath, Janardhan Raju who used to assist Professor Nanjunda Rao in finding puppeteer families says that when they arranged a puppet show in his native village, it actually rained.

A puppet show is no ordinary affair; it is an all night performance with music and drums. The tales that are being told might be traditional but do not lack in drama and make for great entertainment. These leather puppets are  visually stunning; on a light yellow surface of tempered leather complex profiles of characters in action and fine costume are drawn. These stunning puppets with their complex compositions are works of art in themselves, but animated by their puppeteers and by light, sound and narrative, the experience could be completely absorbing.

The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Janapadaloka and the museum of crafts at Udupi have all done a considerable amount of work in collecting and documenting leather puppets and identifying these families. But the number of families practicing the art is fast depleting.Says T N Krishnamurthi, a lecturer of Art History at the Chitrakala Parishath, “We have documented and done our bit for preserving leather puppets through our museum at the Parishath. But to sustain these families monetarily is still a big question. And most of them are giving up their craft because of a lack of patronage.

You would find puppeteer families in Nagamangala in Mandya district, Biddi in Ramangara Taluk, and in villages bordering Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh’s leather puppetry is called Bommalata and is quite established and well known. The Crafts Council and Crafts industry have been working with puppeteers to sell puppets at their melas and utsavs. At such a mela, you canbuy small and big individual puppets, and even panels which tell traditional stories.

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