The Indian subcontinent is a place of unimaginable diversity. There have been different art and craft forms that evolved from this region, one of which is the craft of making Tholu bommalu or leather puppet in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. However, this craft is unique because it is intrinsically linked with an ancient form of entertainment- Tholu Bommalata- or the dance of leather puppets.
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Tholubommalata is a shadow puppet tradition from Andhra Pradesh, known for its roots in traditional tales and folklore. The art of making these puppets is a difficult craft, and an art in itself. The unique beauty of Tholubommalata comes from the fact that it is the same community that make these puppets and the same community that gained such acclaim for entertaining millions of people over millennia.Tholubommalata is so special because it encompasses two very different arts- crafting leather puppets and the painstaking skill of puppeteering, both intimately interdependent.
Tholubommalata History and People
The tradition of making Tholu bommalu and the practice of Tholubommalata is believed to have originated in about the second century BC during Satavahana rule in Andhra Pradesh. The community of puppet makers consists mostly of people of the Balija community from Maharashtra who migrated to Andhra Pradesh. The same community also put up puppet shows, each of them acting as the voices for different characters. The puppeteers/ puppet makers travelled from one village to another, setting up temporary theatres to entertain and educate people through their puppet shows.The puppets were usually mounted in the centre on a palm stick, with strings tied to the limbs to control their movements. A single puppeteer would control all the movements of the puppet, and give it its voice as well. The puppets would be controlled behind a nearly transparent screen, with light shining from behind to cast the colourful shadows of the puppets on the screens.
Music would be played on the side for dramatic effects, and every few minutes, there would be some sort of comic relief, either in the form of exaggerated movements of the puppets or an eccentric manner of speech to convey these values in a memorable and entertaining manner. Tholubommalata was for all strata of society, and for all ages, with entire villages excitedly leaving their homes for the evening to watch the annual show of the travelling artistes. It was once said that the places chosen by the artists to put up a show would experience days of bountiful rain and prosperity.
This tradition continued and maintained its popularity for a long time, through the ancient and mediaeval ages. However, it truly came under the limelight and reached the pinnacle of its renown and popularity under the Vijayanagara empire, when it came under royal patronage. Under the Vijayanagara empire, it was so renowned that a version of the Ramayana called ‘Ramayana Ranganatham’, is believed to have been composed exclusively for a portrayal of Ramayana through the art of puppetry.
Today, the puppets are made by the same community, with each generation inheriting the knowledge of crafting and entertaining with leather puppetry from their senior generations. The community has assimilated into the Telugu state from its original Marathi origins, with Nimmalakunta in Ananthapuram, Narasaraopet in Guntur and D.C. Palle in Nellore districts of Andhra Pradesh being considered the main centres of leather puppet craftsmen now.
Tholubommalata Style, Uniqueness and Process
The process of making these leather puppets is a time-taking and laborious one- it usually takes more than a month. Traditionally, artisans first pick up goat hide from the local meat markets. Then, through a long and labour-intensive process of cleaning and curing, they convert the hide into parchment. This process includes soaking the hide in lime water for ten days, followed by cleaning. The leather is, once again, soaked in water mixed with kadaka powder, a vegetable based natural dye that imparts a light brown hue to the leather. Then, the artisans must allow the leather to dry out for perhaps a week or more.
After the parchment is ready, the artisans trace out the shapes of the soon-to-be puppets with chalk on the parchment and cut out the outline. The shapes generally are those of characters from Indian epics like the Mahabharata or the Ramayana and Indian Mythology in general, because Tholubommalata revolves around these stories- stories of Indian mythology with life and moral lessons, meant to entertain and educate at the same time.
Once the outline is made, the artisans cut out holes in the puppet, this is to make light pass through it, giving it a certain sparkle during the performances. These holes are usually intricate little patterns that look like windows or flowers. Following this, the artisans draw the outline of the figure to be painted with black ink using sharpened bamboo reeds. This forms the outline of the character of what is to be the puppet.
Subsequently, the puppets are painted with vibrant colours traditionally derived from natural dyes, so that the light during the puppet shows don’t overshadow the colours of the Tholu Bomma; instead the vibrant colours just make the puppets look brighter and more beautiful when light shines against them. This process requires a great deal of precision and takes a lot of time. Once it is finished, the artists draw the outline and details in black ink again, to emphasise the details that might have been lost in the process of painting. This is the long, laborious process of making one Tholu bomma.
Recognition for Tholubommalata
In modern India, this beautiful and difficult craft and performing art has not gone unrecognised. In 2008, Tholubommalu were given a GI, or a Geographical indication tag, implying that it cannot be manufactured or performed anywhere outside Andhra by people other than Andhraites. Craftsmen committed to preserving and popularising this ancient craft in the age of globalisation have also individually recognised at the National level. In 2020, master craftsman Mr D Chalapathi Rao from Nimmalakunta village received the Padma Shri award from the then President, Ramnath Kovind, for his efforts to preserve the craft. His entire family is involved in making Tholu bommalu and Tholu bommalata- his relative, Mr Sinde Sriramulu, also received a national award for the same.
Present State of Tholubommalata Art
Despite the accolades and recognition, all is not rosy for these craftsmen and artists. With the rise of modern entertainment media like television and mobile phones, few people are interested in Tholu bommalata now. As a result, craftsmen are now resorting to making commercial products like lampshades and wall hangings to practise their traditional occupation of leather crafts in some way- few craftsmen make Tholu bommalu themselves now, since they see few buyers. The younger generations in the community of the craftsmen are disinterested in the craft, or are being discouraged from practising it, being told to look for something more lucrative instead.
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Tholubommalata is a craft that epitomises the beauty of the arts, crafts and culture of India. It represents not only centuries of craftsmanship, but a tradition of performing arts that helped propagate our culture and values for millenia. In this growing age of globalisation and consequently, homogeneity, awareness regarding the significance of crafts like Tholubommalata is necessary to help the common populace recognise the fact that it is arts, crafts and cultural enterprises like this is what makes our respective regions and cultures unique in an increasingly uniform world.