On 16 February 2020, Sarmaya and Saturday Art Class (SArC) conducted a teacher training session at Jamnabai Narsee School in Juhu, Mumbai. In the audience were coaches from SArC who work regularly with children from Mumbai’s municipal or BMC schools. The purpose was to introduce the educators to the wonderful living tradition of Tholu Bommalaata and explore how it could be used by the children as a storytelling tool.
Archive Director Avehi Menon started off the session by explaining the tradition, craft and culture that informs the art of shadow puppetry in Andhra Pradesh. Using images from Sarmaya’s extensive collection of leather puppets, she took the participants through the distinctive characteristics of this art form, which is equal parts visual art and performance, not to mention top-notch craftsmanship. Avehi also outlined the kind of stories that Tholu Bommalaatas are used to narrate, like episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The teachers were then handed an activity kit produced by Sarmaya and SArC, which contained miniature puppets based on ones in the Sarmaya collection. These miniatures were crafted by the Sarmaya team to be both beautiful enough to attract kids as well as sturdy enough to withstand being handled by a class full of excited storytellers! Avehi and Collections Manager Komal Chitnis helped the teachers put the kits together and make the miniatures jump and dance with quick movements of their wrists. Just watching the teachers have a blast playing with the puppets told us we had a hit on our hands.
The session was then handed over to the SArC team and co-founder Chhavi Khandelwal brainstormed with the teachers on how they could create a meaningful and engaging lesson structure using the Tholu Bommalaata activity kit. The aim they articulated was to explore in classrooms, using the male and female puppets, how certain roles and tasks in society are gendered and what we can all do to ensure parity between the sexes. A timely and important subject that will take creativity and skill to sketch out for children. The SArC educators are more than up for the challenge.