The Ramayana has inspired generations of artists across the world. The story of love, righteousness and the victory of good over evil is easily transferable to different cultures whose painters, sculptors, actors, and dancers have beautifully interpreted and adapted it to their audiences. Another unique manifestation of the epic comes in the form of puppetry. From Karnataka in South India to Indonesia in Southeast Asia, different localised forms of puppet theatre have kept the Ramayana alive for centuries. This Diwali let us take a look at a few of them!
Kerala: Tholpava koothu
Performed over several days, Tholpava Koothu is traditional storytelling art-form that employs leather (thol) figures (pava). It is said to be narrated to the goddess Bhadrakaali who, having been embroiled in a battle of her own with Darika, misses the epic battle between Rama and Ravana. Thus this art-form is traditionally performed in special drama-houses called koothumadam constructed outside Bhadrakali temples. Approximately 130 figures created from painted deerskin dance along one side of a long fabric screen which is lit by oil lamps, creating intricately detailed shadows. These shadows accompany the narration of the story which happens in a dialogic manner interspersed with songs and music.
Andhra Pradesh: Tholu bommalata
Another form of shadow theatre, Tholu Bommalata literally translates to leather (tholu) puppet (bomma) dance (aata). Like Tholpava Koothu, it is also enacted behind a screen and accompanied with dialogues, music, and song. It is an ancient tradition whose earliest reference comes from the 13th c Telugu text, Panditaradhya Charitra. Today it is performed by the Aare Kapu community of Andhra Pradesh. Tholu Bommalata distinguishes itself from other shadow puppet traditions of the south by the vibrant colours and large dimensions of its puppets. The figurines, made from animal hide, can be over 1m tall giving a life-like quality to the puppets. They are also painted on both sides as the performers often flip the puppet to create a three-dimensional effect. The puppets also reflect the aesthetic styles of the region, echoing the paintings of the Lepakshi temple. It is traditionally performed during Shivratri and can last from anywhere between 6 to 8 hours!
West Bengal: Putul Nautch
Literally “Dance of the Puppet”, Putul Nautch is a rod-puppet theatre format. The figures are made of wood, cloth and clay and can weigh up to 15 kilograms! They are operated by puppeteers who travel village to village to narrate stories. They are usually farmers who in winter time take up this activity as a seasonal source of income. Delivered similarly to the local theatrical form Jatra, they narrate different stories from Hindu mythology through song and dance, of which the Ramayana is a popular choice. The bright colours are also reminiscent of Pattachitra art produced in the same region.
Indonesia: Wayang Kulit
Wayang Kulit is an ancient form of shadow theatre performed mainly in Java and Bali. Traditionally it was performed on auspicious occasions such as the birth of a child, a wedding, or when consecrating a house. Here too the puppets are made of animal hide and manipulated behind a screen. However, there is a significant aesthetic difference in the execution of the puppets. Instead of opting for a naturalistic depiction, the figures are exaggerated with long necks, large eyes, protruding noses and disproportional limbs. Before the arrival of Ramayana and Mahabharata, it was used by local priests to trace genealogies in a narrative format. When the Indian epics arrived in the country sometime around the 9th century, they replaced these folk stories as the dominant themes for Wayang Kulit. However, over the years the story underwent significant changes to form a unique hybrid of the two cultures.
Cambodia: Sbek Thom
Sbek Thom is a khmer shadow theatre form that was traditionally only performed on specific occasions such as the Khmer New Year or the King’s birthday. It is inspired by the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana dating back to the 7th century. The puppets are created by carving away the negative space from a singe piece of leather which is attached to a bamboo stick to help the puppeteer manipulate the figure. In addition to the intricate work on the puppet, the orchestra accompaniment and the puppeteers and their rhythmic dance movements add to the beauty of the performance.
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