Andhra Pradesh perhaps has the strongest tradition in shadow theatre which is
locally known as Tholu Bommalata, literally meaning dance of leather puppets
(Tholu-leather, Bommalata-puppet dance). In a small village called Madhavapa-
tnam, about 6 km away from Kakinada, there are more than 50 families of tradi-
tional shadow-puppeteers. The brightly coloured Andhra leather puppets are
the largest among various shadow puppet styles. They range from four to six
feet in height and are quite versatile, having jointed shoulders, elbows,knees
and sometimes also the waist, neck and ankles. The styles in which coloured
shadows are projected on the screen, that is shadow theatre traditions preva-
lent in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, follow almost similar pro-
cess for making the puppet figures. Leather puppets of Andhra style are now
usually made of goat skin. Earlier the figures representing godly characters
were being made of deer skin. This practice is now not followed. After remo-
ving the fur the raw skin is soaked in a solution of salt and alum in water 12
hours or more. It is then stretched tight by nailing it on a plank. When com-
pletely dry, it is carefully scrapped to desired thinness so that it acquires
translucency. Different parts of a puppet figure are then drawn out according
to traditional iconography. For this, an old puppet figure is usually used as
the model. When the parts are cut out of the skin they are appropriately col-
oured with vegetable dyes. The main colours used are different shades of red
and blue, black and yellow. There is a traditional colour scheme as part of
the iconography, which is strictly followed. The next step is to perforate
the part if required, for delineating jewellery etc. The eyes of a puppet fi-
gure, however, are not painted at this stage, since it is believed that once
the eyes are painted the figure is infused with `life'. Therefore, this is
done only after the parts are jointed together to form the rounded figure. Af-
ter the puppet figure is completed a slim bamboo stick is tied to keep the pu-
ppet figure straight when it is lightly pressed on the screen and manipulated.
Nowadays many puppeteers use chemical colours in place of vegetable dyes since
the former are easily available and also work out to be cheaper,but they being
loud and gaudy lack the dignity and pleasing effect of the latter. Again,many
of the traditional shadow-puppeteers have started using gaslight as the light
source instead of the oil fed lamps. As a result the shadows appear harder,
lacking lyricity. The shimmering golden yellow light of the oil fed lamps im-
part ot the shadows a rare aesthetic charm and lyricity besides enriching
their colours. Once the puppet figures are completed and their eyes are pain-
ted, those representing gods are not mixed with the evil ones. They are kept
in separate baskets. This practice is more or less followed in all shadow
theatre traditions of India. In Tholu Bommalata, for traditional lighting two
iron brackets are hung from the ceiling of the improvised stage so that they
reach the vertical mid-points of the screen on both the sides. On these iron
brackets either oil soaked torches or two huge lamps are lighted. Since the
puppet figures are very large the screen is usually eight to ten feet in
height and not less than twelve feet in length. To facilitate manipulation of
puppet figures which for clarity of shadows are required to be lightly pressed
on the screen, it is slightly tilted towards the audieence. Puppeteers stand
and manipulate the figures by holding the tied bamboo stick at the middle. The
articulation of different limbs is done by a stick with a nail at one end. The
puppeteers stand behind the screen and manipulate the figures. At times they
stamp their feet on two wooden planks to provide various sounds which are
quite effective, especially when two characters are engaged in a fierce fight.
The puppeteers also sing and deliver prose dialogues for the puppet figures.
Their singing is supported by one or two vocalists. Percussive accompaniment
is provided by Maddalam, a two ffaced drum and two to three pairs of Talam(cy-
mbals). Harmonium is used only as a drone that provides the pitch for the vo-
calists. Though Tholu Bommalata music blends folk with Karnatic classical,the
predominance of the latter is discernible. In Tholu Bommalata the scene of
fight between two characters is as dramatic as fascinating. Also, a dancing
puppet can do intricate dance movements producing a most fascinating effect on
the screen.


Guest Author: Deepa Reddy06 Jan 2013

This article on Tholu Bomma lata of Andhra Pradesh gives immense pleasure and lively story of AP culture. Good to read it.

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