A form of shadow puppetry practised in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, tholu bommalata is distinct for its life-size, richly hued puppets that are articulated to support a wide range of motions and gestures. The shadow theatre has similarities with togalu gombeyaata, the shadow puppetry of Karnataka, and tolu bommalatam, which is practised on a smaller scale in Tamil Nadu.
The description of the art form and references in regional texts and inscriptions from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth century indicate the popularity of the earlier shadow-puppetry tradition. In addition, historical inscriptions provide evidence of the prestige accorded to traditional puppeteers who received gifts and were influential enough to gift lands to their peers. These traditional puppeteers were collectively known as Bommalata Vallu, which some appended to their family names.
From the eighteenth century onwards, historical references point to a different group of puppeteers who have shaped the modern form of tholu bommalata. Scholars suggest these performing groups migrated to the Karnataka and Andhra regions (now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) from present-day Maharashtra, thus creating a close link between the forms of tholu bommalata and togalu gombeyata. The two groups also speak a dialect of Marathi. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the community is called Aare Kapu, while the puppeteers of Karnataka are called Killekyata. The traditional centres of the puppetry form in Andhra Pradesh are the districts of Anantapur, Guntur and Nellore.
The puppets of tholu bommalata are remarkable for their size, visual stylisation and articulation. These figures are made of the hide of a goat or, occasionally, buffalo. The skin does not undergo a tanning process: instead, it is cleaned and de-haired. Once this process is completed, the skin is stretched taut to prevent wrinkling. The hide is then treated with herbs and beaten to render it translucent.
Once the skin has been processed, the artist, usually the lead puppeteer of a troupe, creates an outline of the character freehand or by tracing an existing puppet. The hide is chiselled along this outline, and the leather is then punched to create small patterns that define ornamentation. The hide pieces are then cut up and connected using strings and a bamboo stick attached to the head and the body. Multiple pieces are required for a single puppet. The head and torso are chiselled out of one piece, while the limbs are made of a second part. For life-size puppets, three hides may be required. The figures in tholu bommalata are articulated at the neck, arms and legs. The head and torso are supported by a long bamboo split, the central control, while smaller sticks manipulate the hands. The articulation is even more pronounced in the puppet depicting a female dancer, which has joints at the shoulders and hips and greater neck mobility.
Both sides of the puppet are painted using vegetable and mineral pigments or, more commonly, synthetic pigments. A puppet’s colours follow iconographic conventions, especially for puppets depicting Rama or Krishna. Except for the figure representing Ravana, the face of a character is always shown in profile. The principal characters of a story may have multiple puppets in various dimensions and poses. For instance, in the Ramayana ensemble, the Hanumana figure has four versions, ranging from 0.5 feet to more than 8 feet in height, corresponding to different situations within the story. The size of puppets, in general, are 5 x 3 feet to 6 x 3.5 feet, although 4-feet long puppets were used in the Telangana region. An ensemble also includes composite puppets depicting one or more characters and puppets for birds, animals and scenic elements.
The screen for a puppet play is a white, tightly stretched curtain at least 8 x 6 feet, set up about 1.5 metres from the ground. The lower half of the stage is covered with a dark cloth to conceal the puppeteers. Electric lights have replaced oil lamps that were used in traditional performances.
The repertory of the shadow plays is based on episodes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, there is no single base text: puppeteers draw on multiple versions of the epics for songs, dialogue and narrative. Music is an integral feature of tholu bommalata performances, from songs that introduce principal characters to dialogues sung in tune and background music for scenes. The instruments used include muddalam and mridangam (percussion drums), cymbals, harmonium, mukhaveena (a reed pipe), and shankha (conch).
A traditional tholu bommalata performance was held over four hours at religious festivals such as Mahashivaratri. Modern versions, however, are shorter, at around two hours. A troupe is usually made up of family members, and men and women manipulate and voice the puppets and sing. A play begins with an invocation of Ganesha and Saraswati, depicted by their puppets. This is followed by a short skit based on the comedic characters, Bangarakka, her husband Jettupoligatu and Ketigadu – echoes of the jesters Killekyata and Bangarakka in togalu gombeyaata – and subsequently the main story. There are several characteristics of presentation in tholu bommalata. Puppets representing divine characters enter from the right, while demons and villains appear from above, accompanied by loud sounds. The dancer puppet is often manipulated by two puppeteers, who themselves perform intricate steps in the style of Kuchipudi. Battle scenes demand different manipulation: a single puppeteer may thrust two puppets against each other to denote combat. These scenes are heightened by sound effects produced by stamping on wooden planks or by blowing a pavada, the hollow bone of a goat.
Tholu bommalata performances were held in temples to mark festivals and were also patronised by wealthy individuals. Since the 1970s, however, the puppetry form has seen a sharp decline. Several puppeteers have quit due to financial constraints, taking up work in the agriculture sector. Many have also turned to leathercraft, applying puppet-making skills to fashion souvenirs and decorative products. Only a handful of troupes continue to practise the art form. Nimmalakunta in the Anantapur district, an important centre for shadow puppetry, is now a primary centre for leather goods inspired by the puppet theatre’s unique visual style. Andhra Pradesh’s leather puppets, and its related products, received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008, but the recognition has not lifted its fortunes.
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