Stones hang from electricity pylons to ensure a ready supply of siphoned off power in Vaderahalli, a village in between Bangalore and Kanakapura. A cluster of five or six pale green houses on each side of a narrow street form the village. Each low tiled roof juts out above a verandah filled with fodder upon which cows are grazing. The verandah of the second house on the right though houses not cows but a makeshift theatre for this evening’s Togalu Gombeyaata performance.
Togalu Gombeyaata is a the particular type of shadow puppetry – an ancient art form which originated in India but is now most famous in South East Asia – practised in Karnataka. It is used most often to narrate episodes from the epics, and tonight’s performance is taken from one of the many sub plots of the Mahabharata, that of the duel between Arjuna and his son, Babhruvahana.
Four puppeteers – two men and two women – from Kollegal, another village in Karnataka not far away, enact the violent confrontation between Arjuna and the son he disowns. The play opens with Ganapati, the god for all beginnings, flanked by two troll-like creatures and two elaborately decorated trees. Behind the white cloth that forms the screen for the shadow play the artists break into a wild-sounding Kannada song, accompanied by a harmonium and a dhol, as one of the women sweeps the invocatory god and his foliage offstage to be replaced by a narrator with a maniacal dance. Next come the epic characters, each beautifully crafted on fine almost paper thin leather and painted in colours brought out to vivid effect by the back lighting – a single, pendulous bulb. Recognisable characteristics identify each character: Bhima has his club, Krishna is an electric blue.
Babhruvahana challenges his father’s ashvamedha – a sacrificial rite involving a horse by which rulers assert their sovereignty – by stealing the horse. Despite the intercession of various tiny women – all the male characters are at least twice the size of the females – the father and son eventually proceed to a duel. The ‘sarpa-bana’ – ‘snake arrow’ – warrants a wonderful display of the puppeteers’ skill as the snake slithers up and down before shooting across the screen. Each puppet is controlled by one or more bamboo sticks that are used to push the flat leather shape across the screen – the humans all have stick-controlled arms so Arjuna can touch Krishna’s feet, the two warriors can fight with sword and bow and the women can indulge in almost perpetual frantic gesticulation. Undoubtedly the best scene involved the mass decapitation of certain evil characters that would appear in hideous splendour before a shooting arrow separated their heads from their bodies.
In between the singing, the puppeteers share the dialogue between the characters on the screen. They sit opposite one another shouting with a very convincing agression as they act out the father and son dispute. The stories, like the puppets and the techniques, are passed on from one generation to the next. This performance was only an hour long, but the team could use the same puppets to entertain a village for a whole night or longer.
In addition to the 15-odd city types with large cameras and an unusual interest in local traditions, many villagers crowded round to watch the performance. The children watched in delight, favouring this novel type of entertainment to the television in the house behind the stage. Two old men came up at the end of the show to congratulate and thank the artists and the woman who had organised it, a software engineer who runs a quirky travel company. They explained how they used to do Yakshagana theatre as well as ‘bayalu’ in their village many years ago, with real people running up and down ropes rather than just puppets. ‘Santosh ayata’, announced one with a large grin, “I am happy”.
The puppet show was organised by Vasanti Panchakshari who runs the travel company Tazad – click here for more details.