In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Shobhna Radhakrisnan

In the flickering light of the oil lamp, a long time ago, stories from the Ramåyana and Mahåbhårata were unfolded night after night. The characters were made to come alive by the masters who were carrying forward an ancient tradition passed to them by their forefathers. The blessings of the ancestors used to be invoked during such performances for a bountiful harvest, wellbeing of the cattle, rainfall or for warding off the evil spirits.

The origin of the tradition of shadow puppetry is shrouded in mystery although once upon a time it was a thriving art form in India. The puppets were made of either deer’s skin or goat’s hide and were venerated as living, breathing deities capable of showering blessings on the practitioners as well as the audience. The puppets were taken out of their boxes on every purnima and worshipped by offering flowers, coconut and incence to bring good luck to the entire community, a practice which continues even to day.

Known by various indigenous names, the shadow puppets are called “tolubommalattam” in Tamil Nadu , “togalugomkeatta” in Karnataka, “tolpavakoothu” in Kerala, “ravanachhaya” in Orissa, “tolubommalatta” in Andhra Pradesh and “chilrakathi” in Maharashtra, where once it was a well practiced tradition flourishing under the patronage of kings and landlords. The puppeteers were well respected and were looked upon as wisemen, well versed in the ancient texts related to medicine, astrology and so on. Each area thus developed it’s own peculiar style with puppets crafted along the pattern of temple frescos. The colour combination, peculiar features and all the small details reflected the influence of the parallel folk dramas of the area.

Natural dyes were extracted from leaves and flowers, mixed with gum from the babool tree and painted delicately with sharpened twigs. The outlines were drawn with the soot of the lamp mixed with gum and the shape filled with. After drawing the eyes the puppeteers breathed life into the puppets by the appropriate rituals. After the rainy season was over they were ready to weave magic night after night, travelling with their boxes from one place to the other.

It is this tradition which was chosen by the IGNCA for transmitting the saga of ‘Bapu’, the Father of the Nation, to the children.

This new venture in the medium of shadow puppetry was aimed at projecting the facets of Gandhiji’s epic struggle, particularly in removing social inequalities, promoting communal harmony and achieving the freedom of man. The puppet play was to transmit the message of satya and ahimsa which BAPU has left for us.

This experimental venture was launched with a view to bring home to the rural masses the message of eschewing social discrimination of validity of satyagraha and non-violence as an instrument of resolving conflicts, of achieving self-reliance through the use of swadeshi and removal of untouchability and maintaining communal harmony. In taking the tradition on its own terms and limiting the vocabulary of articulation, a deliberate attempt was made to retain the original simplicity of the art form.

The message chosen were : Racialism, Satyagraha, Self reliance and Communalism

The script was based on the four messages and was compiled by selecting relevant verses from ‘Satya Path and Satyagraha Gatha‘ written by Shri Ram Pravesh Shastri. With the active collaboration of the Regional Resources Centre, Udupi and the research scholar Shri K. Krishnaiah, one of the shadow puppeters from Karnataka was selected to flag off the very first experimental venture of presenting the story of Mahatma the togalugombeatta tradition. Shri B. Veeranna of Bellary, Karnataka who hailed from the family of shadow puppeteers was entrusted with the project. The very first presentation of BAPU held people spellbound.

The sonarous and resounding voice of Shri Veeranna, majestic shadow puppets and the solmenity of the occassion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary evoked the right mood.

The play started with the sound of three gun shots and ‘Hey Ram‘. Train made of tin boxes entered the stage, held aloft by the puppeteers snaking up and down the performing space.

The train was stopped by the large masked man representing a guard who compares his list to a visual list of colours. On spotting brown colour he pulls out a pair of tongs and pulls out a little puppet figure and throws it down. The little figure tries to get up and reason out but the large figures supresses it and leaves. The little puppet realises that he is coloured and that was the cause of his exclusion.

A play within play begins. Two clowns neutral in look and colour are brought onto stage. Their puppeteers dress them and give them life. The puppets move and dance in unison. On realising that they lack colouring and features they colour theseleves dark and light. They start playing a game with a bat and ball, ball representing the globe. The light one wants to keep the ball and a fight starts where the light coloured clown gets the better of his colleague and tries to push the dark one off the stage. The little brown puppet tries to help but another large puppet appears and beats him up. But the little brown puppet helps the brown clown and bandages him. This goes on until the oppressor gets fed up and leaves. The little brown puppet rejoices, but soon the stage fills up with characters with large banners and symbols and start claiming rights and space.

In the next scene two figures are playing a game of chess. They are backed and cheered by the other figures with banners. The game is full of violence and explosions. The little puppet is depressed and is coaxed to eat by the puppeteers, but he refuses. The train appears again, going across both ways, dropping shrouded bodies. The atmosphere is desolute and grim and grey as death stalls. The brown puppet reasons with the other figures. However, there is animosity amongst them and they divide the space into two.

Three shorts ring in the air. There is complete silence, the earth weeps.

The puppeteers clear the stage and pick up long strands of white cotton and go into the audience, creating a link, music rises as ‘Ram dhun’ is played with the reseeding sound of the train.

The show with imaginative visuals and the frail and gentle puppet of Gandhiji was used as a symbol to juxtapose with a world where bloodshed was the order of the day. Images of Truth brought a welcome freshness into the subject. The show demonstrated the potential of the medium with sensitivity and grace.

The year 1995 was marked as the 125th year of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. IGNCA continued its endeavour to mark the occassion and invited the teachers from the Samanvaya Ashram in Bodhgaya, Bihar. They participated in a fifteen day training workshop and presented a fifty minutes puppet show “Neel Ke Dhabbe” in Bhojpuri.

The story revolved around Satyagraha. Upon his return to India Gandhiji spend time studying the situation. He took up the grievances of the suffering peasantry in Bihar. Rowlatt Act of 1919 had empowered the British to imprison any Indian suspected of seditian without trial. This made Gandhiji to embark on a struggle based on the principle of non-violence. The efficiency of satyagraha was reaffirmed and the grateful nation acknowledged Gandhi as her leader. Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore called him ‘Mahatma’. Champaran, in Bihar became the focus of constructive programme which Mahatma Gandhi started through education, self-reliance and cleanliness. This puppet show was presented in several places in Bihar round the year. In the same year IGNCA presented ‘Sri Kshetra O Bapu’ in the ravanachhaya tradition of Orissa. The story was based on Gandhiji’s visit to Orissa in 1938 and his crusade against untouchability. Thus over the last five years different forms of shadow puppetry were identified and the single theme of Gandhiji’s life and teachings was presented by each one of them in their own style. This was the contribution of IGNCA in disseminating the messages of Gandhiji to the children in collaboration with the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti.

Shobhna Radhakrishnan


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