Thogalu Gombeyata or shadow puppetry is an art form that merges music, performance and puppets. This folk art has several variations such as the Sutrada Gombeyata. The word thogalu means hide of the animal skin and this art form uses special leather puppets to play out scenes from the mythological epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In Sutrada Gombeyata, practised in Southern Mysuru, puppets are made from light wood that is rot resistant. The puppets are covered with long flowy garments.
The artists who perform with thogalu bombe are known as gomberamas and it is said that they originally spoke Marathi. It is believed that they came with the Maratha soldiers, who attacked Mysore in the 18th Century. Today, they speak a mix of Marathi and Kannada.
Incidentally, this is an art form that is practised across several other parts of India and is known by different names. In Maharashtra, it is called Chamadyacha and is performed by the Bahulya and Thakar communities, while in Andhra Pradesh it is called Tolu Bommalatta and performed by Killekyata or the Are Kapu community.
The leather puppets are made from translucent leather and vegetable dyes. Typically, buffalo, goat or sheepskin is used to make these puppets which are cleaned and then treated to become translucent. After this, they are coloured and the limbs are attached loosely to ensure easy movement.
A stick is attached vertically to the puppet in the middle and when these stick 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 Today, however, they have been replaced by low-voltage electric bulbs. "You first draw the sketch and then colour and cut it out to shape, and punch holes. The detailing is done with holes and when you put it against the light, they look like jewels," says Anupama Hoskere, the founder of Dhaatu Puppet Theatre, Bengaluru. The initiative is striving to revive the art through various activities.
To learn more about the art, I decided to head to a small village in Ramanagara district to meet a family of thogalu gombe artists headed by Kalaviduru Gowramma. Gowramma tells that they typically perform stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. "This is a hereditary art form that has been passed through generations and we are about 10,000 of us spread in Ballari, Tumakuru, Gubbi and Nagamangala and other regions," she says.
The artists also work with children to teach them to make puppets, and conduct courses. "Each leather puppet costs close to Rs 10,000. We buy the hide, process it through some heat treatment, wash it and then it becomes almost white. Once we decide on the height (3 to 3.5 feet) we make the design and get it coloured. The paints we use are called minchu banna and it is quite expensive and we source them from Bhadravati," explains Gowramma. Thogalu Gombeyata typically happens in the night and the puppeteers in Karnataka belong to a tribe called Killekyathas.
Interestingly, this traditional art form has seen a sustained revival. Dhaatu has been 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 people's interest in the craft. Again, most importantly, we are able to revive interest in the art of puppetry. We have not just performed across India but have also been invited to perform at several locations abroad,"says Anupama.
She further adds, ''This not just helps the artists but also revives their interest in the art. Dhaatu has helped rural puppeteers come to Bengaluru and perform with urban and international puppeteers. Such efforts have helped them polish their craft. We are able to bridge the gap between the artists and the audience looking for traditional art."
The State government is doing its bit to keep the interest in the art alive by organising shows not just in Karnataka but also across India. Artists like Gowramma say that they are keeping busy now as the number of performances has gone up. It is commendable that this traditional art form is getting a new lease of life due to such efforts.