Only in Asia is the shadow show still cultivated according to its old traditions, as a heritage deeply rooted in the national culture. Interplay of light and coloured shadows is the strongest aspect of the supernatural and dream-like effect of the shadow play. In a modern world, shadow theatre is losing its importance as a mediator between the gods and men by contrast governments now promote its use as an educational tool to fight illiteracy.
A great variety of puppet styles exist. Brighton Museum’s puppets, with articulated limbs, are probably from Kakinada district of Andhra Pradesh. A set of Karnataka shadow puppets comprises at least fifty figures. Frequently a puppeteer will own more than one hundred. Puppet size indicates the character’s social rank, with the ‘holy’ figures being the largest, servants the smallest. Several puppets may be needed to portray a single character, e.g. ordinary Hanuman, giant Hanuman, miniature Hanuman, etc.
Performances of puppet shows are given by traditional performing artists from the more than fifty sub-castes of puppeteers and related craftsmen. In most cases the puppeteers are sudras (low caste) or outcastes, because the handling of leather is considered unclean. For the most part puppeteers are trained by oral tradition, by assisting their parents, by observation, and injunction. There are some areas where master-artists subsidised by the Indian government offer training to puppeteers. These centres are rarely well endowed.
Making the Puppets
These large-scale puppets are made from animal hide, which when dried are translucent. When animal hides were more easily accessible and costs less prohibitive, prescribed kinds of leather were used for certain categories and characters. Today goatskin is generally used. If possible animals are selected which are big enough for the entire figure as seams spoil the translucency.
Once the figures have been trimmed to size and elaborately incised , the leathers are dyed rather than painted, which permits light to pass through the puppets. The result is that when the figures are placed in front of a white screen with light shining from behind, they appear in full colour on the screen. The dyed leather and elaborate cut-out designs result in luminous figures which are like stained glass, rather than shadows or silhouettes more usual in shadow puppet shows.
The puppeteer goes into seclusion when he prepares the figures of Ganesh, Krishna and Rama, performing puja (prayer and offerings) for the successful designing and completion of the figure.The puppet when ready for performance is consecrated by again offering puja. This completion ceremony takes place in the house of the puppeteer, just before a performance.
Staging the Show
The basic elements of the shadow show are the screen, light and the leather puppet figures. Most puppet theatre is performed by travelling performers. In every form of Indian puppetry, two charbhoys (wooden country cots) form the usual foundation of the stage. Two dhotis or two white saris are pinned together lengthwise, forming a screen. The puppeteers perform either sitting or standing behind the screen. If the lighting is placed too close to the screen hot spots of light and large stretches of unilluminated cloth occur. If placed too far away, shadows of the puppeteers are thrown on the screen with the puppets.
The stories are taken most commonly from the beloved Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. The plays offer moral and religious instruction, teaching elements of history and illustrating the magical effectiveness of the gods. Ancestor worship is another aspect of puppet performances. The plays celebrate heroes – legendary and historic – of the Indian people.
Central to the annual cycle of performances is the complete rendering of the Ramayana, adapted and divided into twenty-one parts for the shadow puppet theatre and presented over twenty-one consecutive nights. Over 130 puppets are needed for the presentation.
Music is an integral, if minor part of the art of Indian puppetry. There is singing and the most common instruments are drums, cymbals, harmoniums and dance bells. A bamboo vibrator can be used to produce a high reed-like one. This sound becomes the voice of the puppets. It is a ‘divine’ voice, the puppeteers wife translates the puppets’ dialogue out of this special ‘language’ into that of the audience.
The distinctive deep humming sound of the tambura would have accompanied traditional puppet performances. This sound is an essential part of classical Indian music and the tambura is played continuously through the entire performance.
In performance, the tambura players generally sit behind the main artist so that they can constantly hear the drone. The tambura is cradled upright in the performers lap. Its long neck rests against the players shoulder, its hollow bowl vibrates against the body to amplify the sound.
Performance Gallery was developed at Brighton Museum in response to the excellent collections which relate to performance. The gallery opened in 2002 and an installation of Indian shadow puppets is featured as one of seven puppet traditions from around the world.
Four large leather puppets are mounted on a vertical light screen. The light is behind the figures, and is sufficient to transform the leather into a luminous film, reminiscent of stained glass windows. At the same time they are clearly presented as silhouettes. A graphic silhouette of the puppeteer shows how these figures would have been performed. Alongside the puppets, two highly decorative early 20th century tamburas are displayed.
The gallery label reads:
In shadows cast on a cloth screen, gods battle against agents of evil. Awe and divine inspiration unfold night after night through the Hindu epic of Ramayana.
It was believed that shadows inhabited a different world. Puppets, as part of this shadow world, came to life at full moon. The ‘divine’ voice of the puppet could be heard on a bamboo instrument and is translated for the audience.
This act of religious devotion, often performed in front of a temple, also provided popular entertainment and moral instruction. Today’s shadow shows incorporate contemporary music, multi-media and fantastic light effects.