Express News Service

In the quaint village of Nimmalakunta, in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, there lives a small guild of painters and performers engaged in preserving a dying tradition, Tholu Bommalata, or ‘the dance of leather puppets’. It dates back to 3 BC when itinerant storytellers travelled throughout India, using handmade puppets to narrate a wealth of age-old folklore. In the hands of painters and singers, the puppets served as portable cinema.

Technological innovations and modern entertainment in the 20th century, however, ushered in profound changes, making much of indigenous entertainment irrelevant or restricted to government tableaux. Two-time National Award-winning artist Dr Dalavai Kullayappa hailing from this GI-tagged artistic hamlet is trying to revive Tholu Bommalata. Recently, he exhibited a puppet pageant at La Seine Musicale, Paris, under the ‘Namaste France’ initiative of the Indian Embassy, from July 6-9, and has an ongoing exhibition at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai.

“The more an artist moves around, the more ideas he develops,” says Dalavai, who learned the craft from his father, National Award-winning artist late D Chinna Narayana. “Our forefathers travelled across the subcontinent, conducting puppet shows. Around 400 years ago, they migrated from Maharashtra and settled in Nimmalakunta,” he says.

The shows typically take place during religious festivals, village fairs and social events. These shadow puppets—multicoloured flat leather figures, 8-12 ft large, pressed against a screen with a light source behind—appear as colour shadows to viewers on the other side. The light passing through the translucent leather puppets creates a glowing effect, enhancing the visual appeal. The puppeteers skillfully manoeuvre the forms using rods and strings, synchronising their actions with dialogue and traditional music.

Over time the scope for such performances shrank and artists shifted their attention to making lampshades, paintings, wall-hangings, door-hanging, partition screens etc. “Our bestselling products are lampshades. We make over 50 types in various shapes and styles, in sizes as small as five inches to three to four feet. Prices start at Rs 100 and go up to Rs 5 lakh,” says the 35-year-old puppet master.  

Among the popular Tholu Bommalata themes are stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, local folk tales and legends. All stories revolve around the lives of gods and goddesses, predominantly Rama, Krishna and Ganesha. Traditionally the colours for the puppets were prepared by the artists using natural sources. “Kerosene lamp soot was used for black; turmeric for yellow; the moduga pulu flower for red; amada leaf for green. To this day, we use the same natural pigments. Sometimes, however, readymade waterproof colours are used for a richer and wider palette,” says Dalavai.

Centuries ago, deer leather was used to make puppets. Today, they have switchd to goat leather, which is processed naturally, without using any chemicals. “We first boil it in hot water to remove the grease and impurities. Then we fix it to wooden frames and let it dry under the sun for days,” says Dalavai. After they dry completely, the skins becomes translucent and develop a lambent mirror-like surface.

Once a leather canvas is ready, the artists sketch designs on it using chalk, after which they overline with a needle. “We use a sharp blade to clean the surface which also polishes it. The stem of the bamboo plant is used as a pen—rekni—to outline the designs. Later we punch holes in the leather, creating patterns for the light to pass,” explains Dalavai, who has a UNESCO Award of Excellence to his name.

In Nimmalakunta, around 150 families still practise this art. “Somebody is trained to sculpt a puppet, somebody to paint on it; someone is trained to sing and someone to manipulate the puppet. When it all comes together on the performance night, it has a special bonding effect,” Dalavai says. 

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