A form of shadow puppetry practised in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, togalu gombeyaata draws on epics and folktales, coarse humour and high drama, song and prose in its puppet plays that are performed through the night. Culturally significant, with its associations to fertility, togalu gombeyaata also shares historical and communal roots with tholu bommalata, the shadow-puppetry form of neighbouring states Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The shadow puppets of southern India have been referenced in several historical texts, from Dhanapala’s Tilakmanjari in the eleventh century to Sri Vidyaranya’s Panchadasi dated to the fourteenth century. Scholars state that shadow theatre in southern India enjoyed the patronage of several dynasties, such as the Rashtrakutas, Pallavas, Kadambas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas, as well as the support of the rulers of Vijayanagara and Mysore. Imperial patronage was also extended to the Killekyata community, the traditional performers of the puppetry form, as evidenced by the record of an award granted to them in 1520 AD in the Bijapur Sultanate.
The Killekyata community derives its name from the eponymous character of a togalu gombeyaata performance, who provides an element of coarse comedy during a play. The roots of the community are traced to the present-day region of southern Maharashtra, from where groups of performers migrated to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
There are subtle variations within togalu gombeyaata, evident in the design and size of the puppets and the influence of local folk-theatre forms such as doddabetta and mudalapalya. Shadow puppetry in the Bijapur and Gulbarga districts of northern Karnataka is called katabarata, which uses figures of 1 and 4 feet in height. In Bellary and Dharwad, the form is called kille katarata, after the community, and features puppets up to 5 feet in height. In the districts of Bengaluru and Kolar and those closer to Andhra Pradesh, the form is known as togalu gombe nyata, and is practised with large puppets. The visual style of the puppets reflects the influences of temple art and Islamic art of the region.
The togalu gombeyaata figures are made of cattle skin and cast shadows on the screen during a play. Once it has been cleaned and tanned, the hide is chiselled along the outline of characters to create individual and composite (two or more figures in one unit) puppets with rich details. A bamboo split, attached vertically along the centre of the puppet, is used for manipulation. Traditional puppets, made of a single piece of deerskin, did not have articulated parts, demanding more skill and imagination from the puppeteer, influencing the performance; the introduction of a principal character was accompanied by a detailed narration describing its physical features and attributes. Pigments derived from natural sources, produced in a long-drawn process, were used to paint these puppets. Contemporary puppets, however, have articulated arms and limbs, a change that has come about due to audience demands. The use of natural pigments is also rare, with puppeteers opting for pre-mixed colours. The crafting of a puppet in togalu gombeyaata is ritualised: prayers and offerings are made before the puppet, depicting a deity, is carved and special rituals are followed to ward off the effects of a villainous character on the audience.
The repertory of togalu gombeyaata draws on the epics, Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Puranas and local folk tales called Janapada Kathegalu. A performance is held between 10 pm and the dawn of the following morning and begins with an invocation to Ganesha and Saraswati. A comical interlude between the characters Killekyata and his wife Bangarakka is played out between the invocation and the central theme. Songs and dialogues, often witty, are used alternatively, and musicians accompany the puppeteers on the flute, dhol (a horizontal percussion drum), cymbals, mukhavina (a reed), pungi (reed instrument) and ektari (a one-stringed instrument with a resonator played by plucking). An overnight performance of togalu gombeyaata requires at least fifty puppets, including figures depicting birds, animals and scenes.
Certain episodes are performed at certain times – such as the harvest season or before the monsoons – or as part of wedding festivities due to their association with fertility. Itinerant troupes, comprising members of a family, perform the plays in villages within an area allotted to the family. The process of demarcating these areas is not yet known. A troupe carries its own mobile stage, made of bamboo sticks and cloth, which when assembled is approximately 3 metres square and 2.5 metres in height, and encloses a platform raised at the height of up to 1 metre. A white screen is installed on this platform, and the rest of the staging area is covered by rugs and blankets. The puppeteers sit on the platform and manipulate the puppets with the bamboo splits attached to the articulated parts. Men and women manipulate the puppets in addition to singing and voicing the characters. Nowadays, electric lamps have replaced oil lamps as the light source.
Like other puppetry art forms, togalu gombeyaata faces decline. The number of practising troupes, too, has reduced and the performing art is being kept alive by a few generational puppeteers. T Hombaiah, Bellagallu Veeranna and Gunduraju are master puppeteers, who have performed on several national and international platforms and have been feted by central and state organisations. Veeranna, who also learned the folk-theatre form of Bayalata, is acclaimed for expanding the repertory of togalu gombeyaata, while retaining the aesthetic style of the traditional puppets. Some of the themes Veerana has introduced are based on social issues, India’s independence struggle, and biographical plays on Mahatma Gandhi and Shivaji Bhonsle I. Gunduraju, whose family legacy of togalu gombeyaata spans 200 years, has established a research and training centre to preserve the allied shadow-puppetry forms in Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
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