Leather puppetry – Interview

Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath


13th September 2008

Narrating scenes and episodes, and at times abridged versions of the entire story, of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the art of leather puppetry is found all over India and South East Asia.  Or rather was found.  Nowadays, performances are few and far between, and more often than not reconstructions as it were rather than the traditional village show.  Indonesia’s thriving leather puppetry, Wayang Kulit, is the exception. In July of this year, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath (CKP) opened a new gallery dedicated to the leather puppets of Karnataka, of which it has collected 3,000 over four decades.  General Secretary of the Parishath, Professor MJ Kamalakshi, talks to Venetia Ansell about the tradition and the CKP’s collection.

The art, called Togalugombayeta in Karnataka, involves acting out well known epic episodes using puppets made of flat leather pieces operated by a stick.  The perforated leather is illuminated from behind, making this a form of shadow theatre.  It is thought that the puppets were invented to avoid having gods and goddesses – who feature prominently in Indian epic – depicted by humans.

The shows used to run at night, starting after supper at about 9 and lasting until dawn.  The villagers believed that the performances would bring them good rain during the monsoon season, so the puppeteers would be invited to the village and given food and goods in reciprocation.  If the rains yielded a good crop, the puppeteers might be invited to perform once more – this time to entertain the villagers, exhausted after the harvest – and they would be given a sheep or goat with which to make their puppets.  There are still a few spots where the practice continues, but it is, says Professor Kamalakshi, “very rare”.

At one point, the puppeteers enjoyed the patronage of the king of that area.  They would then function more as itinerant performers, whose task was not only “to teach the villages about the morals and traditions contained in the epics” but also to have a nose around the village.  As they went from house to house collecting their dues, they would note who was rich and find out the latest gossip, and then report back to the king.  Indeed, they were often labelled ‘spies’.

So who were the puppeteers?  Research has identified them as a caste called killekyatha.  Puppetry was very much a family tradition and every aspect of the art was passed on orally – including the details such as which raga to play when and what moral to pronounce at which point.  The killekyathtas‘ mother tongue was always Marathi, but they would use the local language of the place for the show’s dialogue, with the occasional Sanskrit shloka thrown in for good measure.

Professor Kamalakshi, a student of Sanskrit herself, mentions several notable similarities between the structure of the puppet show and that of a typical Sanskrit drama.  At the beginning of the performance, there is an invocation to Ganesh and the audience and sponsors.  This is followed by a conversation between the Killekyatha (represented by a special puppet) and his wife, in which he describes the events they are about to witness.   These two seem to play a role of the sutradhara in a play, as the Professor comments, although their crude humour is also suggestive of the clown or vidushaka.  They also touch on local issues and gossip, a key element in tailoring each performance to its particular audience.  “The preamble is very important to the puppet show”, notes Professor Kamalakshi, “just like in a play, you cannot dive straight into the story”.  During the performance, the use of certain ragas is dictated by the particular rasa that is being evoked – the srngara rasa for instance has a correlative raga.  Although the episodes may contain some grim and terrible material – and much of the Mahabharata particularly does of course revolve around war – the show will never end on a sorrowful note.  The happy ever after ending of Sanskrit drama (and Bollywood films) is to be found here too.  The performance is concluded by the re-entry of the Killekyatha puppet, who, even if he doesn’t say anything, denotes, as Professor Kamalakshi comments, something similar to the ‘The End’ screen of old fashioned films.  And yet, “these people are not literate, or only barely literatre; everything is learnt orally”, which raises interesting questions as to how such links developed.

Professor Kamalakshi’s tutor was the renowned MS Nanjunda Rao, who set up the Parishath and drove the leather puppet intitiative.  The newly-inaugurated gallery is dedicated to him, and CKP has also brought out a book authored by him which provides a detailed survey of the tradition in Karnataka and elsewhere.   As Professor Kamalakshi notes, the thing that sets Karnatakan puppets aside is that they are “a compositon in themselves”.  While other puppets are single characters with greater mobility, these are more like murals, with up to 12 human characters plus the animal figures.  They were designed for performance of course, but can also be decorative.

As you look closely at these puppets, the level of detail is indeed striking.  In one, for instance, you have several women churning curds to make butter.  A small boy scoops a bit of butter out of the urn with his hand.  Above the women the pots where the butter is stored are hanging from a tree to keep them safe from rats, but several cats are already creeping along the branches towards the jars.  Several depict social scenes such as toddy tappers or the unwelcome visit of a tax collector.  History too intruded at times, as the picture below of the British suggests, and the story of a freedom fighter might be interwoven with the epic material. 

The majority of the puppets, though, represent favourite scenes from the two epics, such as Arjuna’s creation of an arrow-ladder stretching from earth to heaven in order to send a message (inscribed in Kannada) to Airavata, the supreme elephant of Indra, asking him to come down and assist his mother in her elephant pooja.  At times, the puppets twist the story slightly.  For instance, for the famous scene where Sita and Ravana are in the grove (Ashokavana) with Hanuman watching, the artist has shown Hanuman high up in a tree above the pair with his long tail hanging down and dangling between them on its tip the ring that Rama sent to Sita.  At times, the puppets are even ‘signed’ by their creator, who writes his own name plus that of his patron.

CKP has organised performances for scholars and interested parties, although they trim the night-long shows down to about an hour.  And indeed many scholars from the US and Germany in particular have gratefully used the rich material available here for their research.  One in particular, Professor Mel Helstein, was instrumental in highlighting this art form in the West.  One anecdote stands out:  In 1980, a Karnatakan troupe travelled to Washington to perform.  After 20 shows, a reporter asked why they had produced no rain.  The troupe leader told him that there were still two shows to go.  The next day there was a downpour.  There is no mention of whether the residents of Washington were as thankful as the village audiences. 

Professor Kamalakshi notes that this is a truly dying art, preserved only through efforts like that of CKP.  Indeed the main way that the puppet making tradition is kept alive is by artisans selling them to tourists.  “It has become commercialised.  They don’t make the puppets as such anymore, instead they make lampshades because they sell better.”  MS Nanjunda Rao was more optimistic, believing that if leather puppetry can adapt itself for modern times it will survive.  “We have to start reorienting the puppets”, he writes.  If the puppeteers could contemporise Ramayana battles by giving the monkey army cannons and dressing Ravana’s army in European uniforms, there should be plenty of scope.

The leather puppet gallery at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath is open Monday to Saturday; tickets are 10 rupees.  MS Nanjunda’s book ‘Leather Puppetry in Karnataka’ is available at the CKP bookshop. 

Interested people may contact Professor Kamalakshi for more details on +91 80 2226 1816/ 2226 3424 or by email on kamalakshimj@yahoo.co.in

All images taken from ‘Leather Puppets in Karnataka’ by MS Nanjunda Rao, courtesy of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath


4 Responses to “Leather puppetry – Interview”

  1. 2 Ratak May 11, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Art in Asia is the leading in the world

  2. 3 Murthy GPS September 2, 2013 at 7:02 am

    I would like to know where these puppets are made and sold Karnataka.

  1. 1 January 2012 Desktop Wallpaper Calendar featuring Leather Puppetry | Imajination Trackback on January 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm

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