Tholu Bommalaata – Dance of the Shadow Puppets

Part of the Spotlight feature Tholu Bommalaata

Journey with us to Dharmavaram and visit the home and studio of National Award-winning puppeteer and artist Sindhe Chithambara Rao and his family. The Sindhes practice the ancient Indian art of Tholu Bommalaata, which is Telugu for ‘dance of the leather dolls’. It’s an art that’s been passed down to Chithambara Rao from his parents, who learned it at the feet of their parents and so on stretching back generations. The Sarmaya team travelled to Dharmavaram in Andhra Pradesh, just a few hours drive from Bengaluru, and spent a couple of days understanding the skill, passion and dedication that goes into crafting these leather puppets in the old painstaking way, and putting on elaborate performances for audiences in nearby villages. See the eyes of the children light up in laughter and watch the grownups clap at the appearance of Hanuman and you’ll agree that this is the kind of magic that never fades.

Going behind the screen

Typically, a Tholu Bommalaata troupe is positioned behind a makeshift screen fashioned from a long white cloth. The temporary stage is set up outdoors on a bamboo framework with some black cloth to cover the rear. It looks like a screen on which films are projected; only in this performance the imagery emerges from behind the screen. The backstage area is lit with lamps or, more commonly, three or four bulbs suspended from the frame. The lights help to silhouette the transparent leather puppets against the white screen when the puppets are pressed on the cloth. The puppeteers stand on the floor or on wooden planks spread one over the other. The sound effects made by walking or jumping on these planks during the performance add to the dramatic effect of the plays. The artists try to stand behind the bulbs or lamps so as to not cast their own shadow on the cloth. This usually means they stand a foot away from the screen. Sometimes, the puppeteers also wear ‘ghungroos’ and dance along with puppets to create music from them—you can see this in our film. The singers stand or sit at the edge of the stage. The more successful troupes will have mics suspended from the frame for the singers and musicians as well. 

Meet the crew

The troupe has three to four puppeteers, and two to three musicians and singers. The puppeteers have to expertly manipulate these sizable leather figures and the real test of their brilliance comes during a dance sequence or a battle scene. A couple of accompanying singers is a must, at least one of whom should be female. These singers are chosen not just for their tonal range but also their lung power! At the end of every line in a song, they have to go loud and prolong the tune for a while. Alongside these singers a few musicians are also present and these have to be experts in Carnatic and classical music. They are drummers, harmonium players and mukhavina players. The cymbals are usually played by the singers themselves as they help in keeping rhythm. Each member of the troupe has to memorise the dialogues and songs written for each play. 

And we’re off!

Every performance starts with a puppet of Lord Ganesha pressed on the screen and a prayer chanted to ask for divine blessings. After this, the performance begins. Among the epics, Ramayana is the more popular one. Traditionally, Tholu Bommalaata performances started at 9pm and went on through the night. Today, however, the show is compressed into a couple of hours to keep the attention of restive audiences. But if the crowd demands more at the end of a performance, the troupe may launch into another chapter of the same epic.