From goat hide to sublime art forms
As with most other performing arts in India, shadow puppetry was deeply connected with religious beliefs and cultural practice when it came to life. It mostly depicted narratives from religious texts, like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, blending them with local customs and legends.
The artists would travel from village to village, putting up performances that spread over days.
Today, television and cinema are the dominant forms of entertainment, rendering shadow puppetry performances scarce and hard to come by.
The traditional process of crafting shadow puppets requires 30-40 days, from the procurement of leather to the completion of the product.
However, with the shortage of water, use of newer materials such as chemical colouring, and the switching over to smaller products, the artisans now take only two to three days to make a medium-sized product.
The goat hide is transformed into a translucent parchment through a laborious process of curing, washing and cleaning.
Once the hide is ready, the outlines of the figures of the puppets are marked out.
Seen here, the artist draws a full figure of Lord Ganesha with a white chalk on the hide.
Once the outlines are drawn, little windows are cut out in the leather.
These little windows, when held against the light, bring out the details of the puppet.
They also create a sparkling effect that makes the puppet look like an ornament.
Fine cut-outs, such as this floral design, are made on the leather sheet.
The outlines of the figures are painted in black with the help of a bamboo nib.
Thin strips of bamboo are sharpened at the edge to create a nib-like shape.
Bamboo pens are also used to add smaller details on what will soon be the puppet.
After marking the outlines, different colours are filled into the main form. This requires painstaking precision and a considerable amount of time.
While black, red and green are some of the colours commonly used for the puppets, female figures and sages are characteristically usually depicted in yellow.
After the colouring is completed, the outlines are marked in black once again.
The artist prepares a stick that will be used to operate the puppets.
The puppet form is then mounted on sticks and bound with ropes to facilitate movement.
The mobility of the puppets enhances the performance.
In order to allow free movement, different parts of the puppet (head and limbs) are cut separately and then tied to each other individually.
With the change in dominant popular forms of entertainment, the few shadow puppetry performances that are staged are much abridged.
Even so, every performance begins with the invocation of the gods for their blessings, and for an auspicious start.
Master craftsman, Sindhe Sriramulu, poses with one of his puppets used for performances.
The master craftsman and his wife pose with a tiger puppet they made as an entry for an award.
This video clip gives a glimpse into the lives of leather puppet artisans and the history behind this art form.
Text: Aloka Hiremath and Jaya Jaitly
Photography: Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Charu Verma
Artisans: Sindhe Sriramulu and family
Ground Facilitator: Shalini Shashi
Curation: Ruchira Verma
- Director: Jyoti Neggi
- Production: Studio Gola