Prior to the advent of Cinema and worlds largest film fraternity, Bollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood and all of the other wonderful regional Indian cinema, entertainment was primarily offered through Story-telling. Ballad-singing troupes that travelled from village to village, the Ram Lila, a dance-drama that enacts the Ramayana or folk-dancing on seasonal festivals, puppets-shows and eventually in the 1900s the Bioscope. The Bioscope, was an old camera where the slides were changed cyclically, in sync with, relevant music to give the solitary viewer who peered down the lens, a motion picture experience. How far we’ve come in the span of just a few decades!
In the 16th Century, the Vijayanagara Empire, flourished in the Southern states of India, its rulers were some of the greatest patrons of the arts and crafts. During their reign, Tolubommalata, or the Leather Puppet Theatre, became very popular and with time, one part of that terrain came to be known as the state of Andhra Pradesh and this performing art, survived as a part of cultural heritage.
Puppet-shows need..puppets! Puppets need craftspersons that can use whatever materials are locally available to make attractive puppets that are capable of great stage presence!
People and puppets were a seamless extension of one-another. The puppet was the physical representation of the human form and relied on the human, to lend it a voice. A rather unique art, that to this day fascinates and draws a large crowd of audiences, whenever its being performed.
These puppets, the size of human beings were made from translucent goat skin, with human-sized cut-outs and painted in attractive, bold and bright colors with perforations added in, for light to pass through. The artisans were fishermen and farmers, originally from Maharashtra, a Western State, prior to their migration to Andhra Pradesh.
The popular themes, for the Puppet Theatre, were episodes from the epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two ancient Indian epics that captured the imagination of the masses. At the very beginning of the show is marked by the entry of the Ganesha puppet whose blessings are sought for a smooth performance. The chariots and horses and jokers are introduced for an effective performance besides the main characters. These puppet figures were about 3 to 6 feet high, quite like the human form and proportionately made, with stunning painted details on both sides to offer a great viewing experience!
A large white cloth made for the background screen and a naked light bulb provided the right projection for effect and in its absence? Well… there were always lamps lit by oil!!
This craft of making Leather-puppets continues and has since been extended to making product suited to contemporary life. Lamps, lanterns, baskets and items for home decor.