Sarmaya founder Paul Abraham talks about his love for Tholu Bommalaata, what makes it so unique and special, and why we must protect this precious art form and the people and history it represents.
What drew you to the art form of Tholu Bommalaata?
“The sheer technique and artistry — it was the first time I had seen such elaborate work on leather, which was then brought to life through the use of lovely deep colour. The first time I came across this art form, I fell in love with it.”
When did Sarmaya first acquire Tholu puppets and how has the collection taken shape over time?
“The first acquisition was actually long before Sarmaya started, at a time when I was collecting in my personal capacity. In the recent past I have been collecting older pieces, and we must have at least 200 to 300 of them now. Some new, but lots of old pieces.”
How old do you estimate some of the pieces are and what is their charm when compared to new ones?
“I think the art form itself has evolved. Of the old ones, some have a certain poignancy to them because they are missing a limb, are torn or frayed. I can just imagine the kind of use they have been put to over the years. But I also feel there is a rustic charm to them.”
“Today, the objects are far more evolved in terms of the craftsmanship. It’s much more beautiful, much more intricate. In the past it was flat, and didn’t have the punched holes that are there now. And the colours were much more muted, rather than the exquisitely bright colouring of today. There has also been a slight shift in the palette — it was more pink at that time, more grey. Today it’s more red. They have started experimenting with other colours, greens, blues.”
What goes on behind the scenes of Tholu Bommalaata?
“To me, what happens behind the scenes is actually more exciting than what’s in front of the screen. The skilful manipulation of the puppets, for one thing — there are typically around 50 characters in an evening performance and there will be two or three people manipulating the puppets. In effect, each person is holding maybe one or two or three puppets, managing them and then switching them as the narrative and story move on.”
“There is also an explosion of music alongside. The dhol, the clanging of cymbals and the lovely music sung by a performing artist. It’s a combination that is fabulous, because most of it is behind the screen. The back-lighting, the manipulation of the puppets, the actual singing, the general ambience behind the screen — there is so much happening there.”
Can someone who doesn’t understand Telugu enjoy a Tholu Bommalaata performance?
“Oh, absolutely. A lot of this stuff is in our DNA, acquired over the years through so much storytelling, so I think most of this isn’t alien to us. You may miss some of the nuances, but the visual experience is so magical that you will piece the story together in your own mind.”
What is it about Chithambara Rao as an artist that makes him so valuable for the art?
“Chithambara Rao is a joyful soul and he is extremely knowledgeable, so that’s a fantastic and unique combination to find. He is unabashed in his narration of stories, whether related to the craft or to anything else. The other important thing is there is a cerebral element to the man, which is extremely unique. He is able to not only narrate the epic in its raw form, but also able to read into it and give you very interesting and different perspectives to it.”
What is Chithambara Rao’s biggest strength as a performer and artist?
“He has a very powerful voice, which is quite essential. But then other members of his family, including his sister who’s also a great performer, are equally adept. I think what is unique about Chithambara is the fact that he blends a certain psyche and state of happiness along with the knowledge and physical attributes required to be a performer very beautifully.”
As a history buff, what fascinates you about an artist and a tradition?
“This particular craft resides here in Dharmavaram [in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh], but its origins seem to go back many hundreds of years, where these people are supposed to have migrated from Maharashtra, through to Karnataka, then into Andhra and the Rayalaseema region. So it’s a story of migration, a story of displacement. It’s a story of how as each community moved on that evolved the art. So there’s a Karnataka version of Tholu, there’s a Tamil version, a Telugu version. The physical attributes and sizes of the puppets are all different.”
“So, I think in that context, it’s very interesting to see how a social group transforms itself over the years and makes a distant land home. And I think with every craft, there comes a time when you are also thinking, what next? Right now, not just Tholu Bommalaata, many other craft forms are facing that existential crisis about where we are headed with them.”
Why is Tholu Bommalaata, like many indigenous art forms, practised by the whole family?
“In many of our traditional art forms it’s a family or an extended group in the local community that comes together to make the art happen. There are multiple skills involved, and these are brought together by the family working in harmony. The intimacy that is created within the family when one person is trained to sing, another is trained to make the puppets, yet another is manipulating the puppet — all of it coming together on the night you perform. It’s very special and it creates a bond, a connection.”
What is Sarmaya’s vision when it comes to our engagement with Tholu Bommalaata?
“The first and most important is for our audience to get a better sense of the art form. I think we city slickers don’t know enough and are not humble enough to accept that these people have knowledge and skill way beyond what we credit them with.”
“The second is to be able to provide a platform to exhibit the artists’ true capability, without limitations. To bring what they feel is their best, the grandeur of the skill behind the craft, with no compromises.”
“Thirdly and most importantly, is to let the audience hear, see and understand that this is not a casual roadside craft. It’s a very deep tradition that has hundreds of years of evolution behind it.”
If we were to ever lose this craft, what would that mean for our culture and heritage?
“I think if we lose our diversity, whether that be natural diversity or cultural diversity, we lose our soul. India is magnificent for this very reason. We are such a diverse people but we are united by the depth of our stories, we are united by the depth of our culture. If I can come out of Mumbai and find fascination in an art form in Dharmavaram, in Patangar, in Madhuban, that’s special. It’s a special privilege for us in this country to be aware of all this richness that we can call ours. That adds so much to our quality of life.”