Thogalu Bombe – the art of shadow puppetry

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Thogalu Bombe

Thogalu Bombe

An art form that merges music, performance and puppets, Thogalu Bombeyata is a unique shadow puppet show that is practiced in Karnataka. This folk art has several variations as Sutrada Gombeyata and Yakshagana Bayalata. Basically thogalu means hide of the animal skin and this art form uses special leather puppets to play out scenes from the epics – the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and mythology. In Sutrada Gombeyata, practiced in Southern Mysore, puppets are made from light wood that is rot resistant and are without legs and are covered with long flowy garments. The artists who perform with thogalu bombe are known as gomberamas and it is said that these people are originally Marathis who came with the Maratha soldiers who attacked Mysore and speak a mix of Marathi and Kannada. Incidentally, this is an art form that is practiced across several other parts of India and is called by different names. In Maharashtra it is called Chamadyacha and is done by the Bahulya and Thakar communities while in Andhra Pradesh it is called Tolu Bommalatta and is practiced by Killekyata/Are Kapu community. In Tamil Nadu this puppetry form is called Tolu Bommalattam done by the Killekyata, in Kerala it is called Tolpava Kuthu Vellalachetti by the Nair community and in Orissa it is referred to as Ravanachhaya done by the Bhat community.

Kalaviduru Gowramma demonstrating the art with puppets

Kalaviduru Gowramma demonstrating the art with puppets

Shadow Puppets

The leather puppets are made from translucent leather and coloured vegetable dyes. Typically, buffalo, goat or sheep skin is used to make these puppets which are cleaned and then treated to become translucent. After this they are coloured and the limbs are joined together loosely to ensure that they can move separately. A stick is attached vertically in the middle and when these sticks moves, it gives an impression that the puppet is moving. For special movements single strings are attached to the limbs. These leather puppets are usually projected on a screen that is illuminated by a light kept behind the puppets. The puppeteer sits behind the light source and manipulates the puppets while speaking and singing the parts. The light source traditionally would be a bowl filled with castor or coconut oil lit by a wick. Today however they have been replaced by low-voltage electric bulbs. “The puppets are primarily mailed using goat skin. You first draw the sketch first and then colour and then cut it out to shape and punch holes. The detailing is done with holes and when you put it against the light they are like jewels. In Karnataka the profiles show both eyes, perhaps they were inspired by Picasso’s drawings. Also I believe that these are not stagnant as the permeability of the light makes the colour appears deeper,” explains Anupama Hoskere, Dhaatu Puppet Theatre, Bengaluru.

Hanuman is a favourite story for the art

Hanuman is a favourite story for the art

Artist Speak

To come more up close with the art, I decided to head to a small village in Ramnagar district to meet a family of thogalu bombe artistes led by Kalaviduru Gowramma. Driving through the lush green country side I reach a small village to meet the artiste herself. Gowramma tells me that they typically perform to stories from The Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata. “This is a hereditary art form that has been passed through generations and we are about 10000 of us spread in Bellaray, Tumkur, Gubbi and Nagamangala among others.” The artistes also work with children to teach them to make puppets and do structured courses as well. “Each leather puppet costs close to Rs. 10000 and we actually pray to them. We buy the hide, clean it through some heat treatment, wash it and then it becomes almost white. Once we decide on the height (upto a maximum of 3 to 3.5 feet) we make the design and get it coloured. The paints we use are called Minchu Banna and it costs as much as gold and we source them from Bhadrawati,” explains Gowramma. Thogalu Bombeatta would typically happen in the night and these puppeteers belong to tribe called Killekyathas.

Anupama Hoskere, Dhaatu Puppet Theatre, Bengaluru

Anupama Hoskere, Dhaatu Puppet Theatre, Bengaluru

Future Perfect

In spite of the fact that this is a traditional art form, it is one that is seeing a sustained revival. Dhaatu is a Bengaluru based organization that is largely responsible for urban audiences to appreciate puppetry. “The intricacy of the movement and the ability to be able to entertain an audience is how we are able to revive interest in the craft. Again most importantly we are able to bring back interest in the art of puppetry. We have not just performed across India but have also been incited to perform at several locations abroad. This not just helps the artists but also revives interest in the art of puppetry as such. We have helped rural puppeteers come to Bangalore and perform with urban and international puppeteers which have helped them polished their craft. Again we are able to bridge the gap between the artists at one end who are unaware that their craft is wanted to an audience who is looking for something traditional,” says Hoskere. Incidentally, the State Government is doing its bit to keep the interest in the art alive by organizing shows not just in Karnataka but also across India. Artists like Gowramma say that they are keeping busy now as the number of performances have gone up. It is indeed commendable that these puppets are getting a new lease of life thanks to efforts from both the Government and private NGO’s. So the next time you watch a show remember the words of Sam Harris, “a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”

Did you know?

  • Thogalu Bombe is called Badgalapaya in Uttatra Karnataka, Thenkalapaya in Dakshina Karnataka and Modalapaya in the Andhra – Karnataka border.
  • Shadow Puppetry originated in the east and moved to the west.
  • Hanuman is a favourite topic and his stories are usually performed in the shows.
  • In earlier days the shows would happen on invitation only.

This story appeared in Deccan Herald Spectrum on 9th Jan 2018 here

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