A form of shadow puppetry practised in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in India, tholu bommalata — ‘dance or play of the leather dolls’ in Telugu — is distinguished among South India’s shadow puppetry practices by its life-sized and richly hued articulated leather puppets. Presenting episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the puppeteers draw on various versions of these epics for songs, dialogue and narrative. Practised by the Aare Kapu community of the region, tholu bommalata is concentrated in the Anantapur, Guntur and Nellore districts. It shares similarities with the shadow puppetry forms of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — togalu gombeyaata and tolu bommalatam, respectively.
While the shadow puppetry tradition in India is known to have become popular by the third or fourth century CE, the earliest textual reference to tholu bommalata is found in a thirteenth-century Telugu text, Panditaradhya Charitra. Other references to it in inscriptions from as early as 1208 CE indicate the historic popularity of the tradition in southern India, as well as the prestige accorded to masters of the form, evident in the records of large gifts that they received as well as gave. Historically, puppeteers were patronised by the royalty and upper classes, as well as the temples where they performed during festivals. The Pallava and Chalukya dynasties, as well as rulers of the Vijayanagara empire, such as Krishnadevaraya, were patrons of shadow theatre. These traditional puppeteers were collectively known as bommalata vallu, a title some appended to their family names. The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of a different group of puppeteers who have shaped the modern form of tholu bommalata. Scholars suggest that these performing groups, hailing from present-day Maharashtra, migrated south to the regions of present-day Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, creating the closely related forms of tholu bommalata and togalu gombeyaata. While their descendants use Telugu and Kannada in their performances, many of them are known to use a Marathi dialect called Aare amongst themselves.
Tholu bommalata is a hereditary craft, passed down through generations patrilineally. Practitioners of the tradition are sometimes known to identify themselves with the Chitrakar caste of artists and performers, also associated with performative painting traditions such as Bengali and Odia pattachitra. The puppeteers are also the puppet-makers, and a troupe usually comprises family members, with the head of the family serving as the lead puppeteer. He is usually accompanied by two or three other puppeteers, including one or two women, in singing, narrating and performing. Up to five or six others, including younger members of the family, may be part of the troupe, performing subsidiary duties and undergoing training.
Tholu bommalata is distinctive among Indian shadow puppetry traditions for its large puppets, typically ranging between 1 and 2 metres in height, with larger as well as smaller puppets also included in an ensemble. The principal characters of a story often have multiple puppets each, in various dimensions and poses. For instance, in the Ramayana ensemble, the Hanumana figure often has four versions, ranging from about 15 to 250 centimetres in height, corresponding to different situations within the story.
The puppets have traditionally been made from goat, deer or buffalo hide, with the choice of skin depending on the type of character the puppet is to play. In recent times, goat hide is the most commonly used leather for these puppets. After the skin is shaved and cleaned, it is treated with herbs and beaten to render it thin and translucent, and stretched flat to prevent wrinkling. This process takes at least three days, at the end of which it resembles stiff parchment. Once the skin has been processed, the puppet maker draws an outline of the character on it, either freehand or traced from the silhouette of an existing puppet. The hide is cut along this outline, and various patterns indicating the figure’s clothing and ornaments are incised and perforated within it.
A single puppet typically requires one skin, with up to three needed for larger puppets. The figure is composed of separate pieces, which are pierced and joined with string at the points of articulation. The head and torso are usually cut out of one piece, while the limbs are made separately, with the figure articulated at the neck, arms and legs. The head and torso are connected by a long sturdy stick that supports the figure and forms the central control, while thinner sticks manipulate the limbs. Puppets depicting female dancers have additional articulation points, such as at the hips and shoulders. Except for the figure of the ten-headed Ravana, the faces of all the puppets are rendered in profile.
To allow them to be flipped to change direction during performances, the puppets are painted on both sides. They are traditionally rendered in red, green and black, with white highlights, using vegetable and mineral pigments; today, synthetic colours are used in a wider palette. However, the colours used follow iconographic conventions, especially for puppets depicting Rama and Krishna. The style and visual language used derives in large part from that of the murals at Virabhadra Temple, Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh. Various other aspects of the characters’ appearance, such as their dress and hairstyles, also follow traditional conventions that distinguish not only one character from another, but also a character’s role in various contexts. Immoral characters are usually depicted unclothed, for example, and a character’s hair or headgear may vary depending on whether he or she is a royal or ascetic figure in that part of the story. An ensemble also includes unarticulated composite puppets depicting one or more characters, as well as birds, animals and scenic elements.
The action in tholu bommalata performances takes place behind a large white screen. This is a length of fabric 3 to 6 metres wide and 2 to 3.5 metres tall, tightly stretched within a bamboo or timber frame, and usually tilted towards the audience at a small angle to the vertical. The screen is raised off the ground to a height of about 1.5 metres, the part below it covered with a dark cloth to conceal the standing puppeteers. A light source behind them illuminates the puppets so that their silhouettes and coloured shadows are visible to the audience. While a row of oil lamps is used traditionally, it has largely been replaced by gas lanterns or electric lights.
Performed at religious festivals such as Shivaratri in honour of Shiva, the primary deity associated with the art form, tholu bommalata plays typically take place through the night, traditionally lasting four hours or more; modern versions are relatively shorter, running to about two hours. While performers usually borrow from various versions of the epics, chiefly the Ramayana, the sixteenth-century Ranganatha Ramayana by Gona Budda Reddy stands out as a theatrical rendition of the Ramayana that was written specifically for use in shadow puppetry. The performance begins with rituals including invocations of Ganesha and Saraswati, depicted by their puppets. Before the main play begins, there is a short skit featuring the comedic characters, Bangarakka, Jettupoligatu and Ketigadu, who offer tribute to the patrons, organisers and audience, as well as humorous or sarcastic commentary. Such comedic interjections also take place periodically through the narrative. Among the conventions of the performance is the characters’ direction of entry, which clarifies their role to the audience. Puppets representing divine characters enter from the right, while demons and villains appear from above, accompanied by loud sounds. While a puppeteer typically handles only one puppet at a time, dancing puppets are often manipulated by two puppeteers, who themselves perform intricate steps in the style of Kuchipudi. Battle scenes also demand different manipulation, and a single puppeteer may thrust two puppets against each other to denote combat. These scenes are heightened by sound effects produced by troupe members stomping on wooden planks or blowing a pavada, the hollow bone of a goat.
Music is an integral feature of tholu bommalata performances, from songs that introduce principal characters to sung dialogues and background music for scenes. The instruments that are used include the muddalam and mridangam (percussion drums), cymbals, harmonium, mukhaveena (a reed pipe), and shankha (conch).
Since the 1970s, tholu bommalata has seen a sharp decline. Several puppeteers have moved away from working with the artform due to financial constraints, taking up work in the agriculture sector. Many have also turned to leather handicrafts, applying their 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. Although Andhra Pradesh’s leather puppets and related products received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008, the recognition has had little impact towards revitalising the tradition.
This article first appeared in the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art.
The MAP Academy is a non-profit online platform consisting of an Encyclopedia of Art, Courses and Stories, that encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts and histories of South Asia. Our team of researchers, editors, writers and creatives are united by a shared goal of creating more equitable resources for the study of art histories from the region.