The Art of Leather Puppet Making

Dastkari Haat Samiti

From goat hide to sublime art forms

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
The art of leather puppet performances
The leather puppetry of Andhra Pradesh is amongst the oldest shadow puppet traditions. It is a medium of entertainment, of sharing and transmitting folklore, and of communicating information and knowledge. Most leather puppets were, and continue to be, influenced by the social context around the artists.
Leather Puppet Making: New products, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2010/2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: New products, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2010/2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Shape definition and cutting
The process starts with procurement of fresh goat hide from the weekly meat market. The hide is then soaked in cold water for two to three hours before it can be cut and flattened. The hide is washed thoroughly in warm water and then put to dry in the sun for a few hours. Once it is ready, the artists cut the leather to size depending on the product requirement.
Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The goat hide is transformed into a translucent parchment through a laborious process of curing, washing and cleaning.

Leather Puppet Making: New products, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Once the hide is ready, the outlines of the figures of the puppets are marked out.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Seen here, the artist draws a full figure of Lord Ganesha with a white chalk on the hide.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Once the outlines are drawn, little windows are cut out in the leather.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Fine cut-outs, such as this floral design, are made on the leather sheet.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Outlining the figures
Once the design is cut out on the hide, it is outlined with blank ink using a bamboo nib. Holes are punched as embellishment at this stage. 
Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The outlines of the figures are painted in black with the help of a bamboo nib.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Thin strips of bamboo are sharpened at the edge to create a nib-like shape.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Bamboo pens are also used to add smaller details on what will soon be the puppet.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Colouring the figures
Once the figure is outlined, the leather is coloured in vibrant hues, such as red, green and ochre, among others. Ink is used as a colouring agent and is applied with a brush.
Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

After marking the outlines, different colours are filled into the main form. This requires painstaking precision and a considerable amount of time.

Leather Puppet Making: New products, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2010/2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

After the colouring is completed, the outlines are marked in black once again.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Rigging the puppets
To make the puppets, individual parts of the products are cut and then are stitched together. This enables mobility for manipulating the puppets during a puppet show.
Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The artist prepares a stick that will be used to operate the puppets.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The puppet form is then mounted on sticks and bound with ropes to facilitate movement.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

The mobility of the puppets enhances the performance.

Leather Puppet Making: Leather Puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

In order to allow free movement, different parts of the puppet (head and limbs) are cut separately and then tied to each other individually.

Leather Puppet Making: Leather puppets, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2010/2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti
Masterpieces
Master craftsman Sindhe Sriramulu's puppets, that are used for performances, are remarkable and unique. Leather puppetry, also known as Tolu Bommalata, brings together the plastic arts of painting and leather craft with theatre that combines folklore with local story-telling and musical traditions. 
Leather Puppet Making: Sindhe Sriramulu's family portrait, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: Leather puppets, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Master craftsman, Sindhe Sriramulu, poses with one of his puppets used for performances.

Leather Puppet Making: Making the puppets, 2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

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.

Leather Puppet Making: New products, Sindhe Sriramulu, 2010/2017, From the collection of: Dastkari Haat Samiti

Read more about the craft of Leather Puppet Making:

- The Influence of Lepakshi Temple
- Products beyond the puppets
- Narrative Art

Dastkari Haat Samiti
Credits: Story

Text: Aloka Hiremath and Jaya Jaitly
Photography: Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Charu Verma
Artisans: Sindhe Sriramulu and family
Ground Facilitator: Shalini Shashi
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Cinematic Video:
- Director: Jyoti Neggi
- Production: Studio Gola

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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