The concept of entertainment has drastically changed over the years. Among the many genres and mediums, we’ve come a long way from hearing tales of people walking miles to attend festive fairs to people watching stand-up comedy shows on television in 2020.
Puppetry is a form of entertainment, rather a form of theatre performance that involves a display of different social or mythological characters. In India, this traditional theatre had been a thriving entertainment and a symbolic heritage in many states. People still uphold this cultural expression in different parts of the country namely in Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu.
As we’re all trying to catch up to unceasing mediums of technology, these once deep-rooted art forms have gradually slipped into a dark tunnel. One such puppetry form is Tholu Bommalata.
What is Tholu Bommalata?
Born in the rich region of Andhra Pradesh that is popular for the many traditions it cradles, Tholubommalata is the expression of this state’s heritage. Also known as Tholu Bommalu or Tholu Bommalata, this form of shadow-puppet theatre originated in 200BC during the Satavahana dynasty.
The storytellers have been instrumental in disseminating tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata by using vibrant and intricately hand cut leather prints to portray different mythological characters. The leather puppets are carefully mounted on a palm stem anchored by storytellers standing in the background of a white curtain swaying the characters in motion with the storyline. These storytellers skilfully narrate the story and sing ballads which is quite commendable considering the synchronization required in maintaining the rhythm of both- the story and puppet movements.
Why is Tholubommalata a dying art form?
The art form consists of wanderers who are entertainers traveling from villages to cities. Before the advent of televisions and radios, these performers wandered and sang ballads, sold amulets, told fortunes to people, imprinted tattoos, etc.
But due to emerging mediums of entertainment and change in preferences, Tholubommalata is now a far-sighted art form. The group of this old-age shadow puppetry are struggling to keep it alive as they rarely get a show twice a month, which has led them to a downhill.
“I fondly remember Tholubommalata as a young child. We were in awe of these puppet shows in the village and we always looked forward to them as they were distinctive. The troupe would camp in our village for a period of 15 days as they shouldered dheras, long curtains, the puppets, etc.” said 60-year old Ramkishan Rao Bardipurkar who once lived in the village of Bardipur in Telangana. He says that the number of shows have drastically reduced and now he visits exhibitions where Tholubommalata printed bags and lamps are sold, nonetheless, displaying the sheer artistic efforts of people who make them.
Raghavendra Khande is a Tholu bommalata artist from Nimmalakunta in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Raghavendra has followed in his father’s shoes, an award winner in the art form. The 34 year old artist now incorporates the art in floor lamps, books, bags, etc as they don’t get approached as much to perform. “The pandemic has put us in a dire state. We don’t get any shows, neither are we selling the artwork currently as we have no buyers.”
Like Raghavendra, few small businesses are trying to innovate through the art form. In return, it has enabled these artisans to keep the art form relevant as well as themselves.
If you’re someone who has good knowledge about Tholubommalata and would like to share your artwork with everyone, you can get in touch with us for workshops, or simply create your profile and join communities on One Page Spotlight to educate more people and keep this vibrant artform alive. We have a thriving community of handicrafts, traditional and folk artisanal products in our special feature called Blue Store. Do visit and support traditional artists and art forms by purchasing their products.