Play of shadows
I am not used to associating puppets with flat surfaces. So, when Jimmy Chishi showed me his shadow puppets, flat surfaces, I wondered if they could match up to those soft toy-like figures I’ve known as puppets. But what fascinated me were the motifs on these flat puppets and the beautiful craftsmanship. And then he showed me photographs from his exhibitions, and I was mesmerised. When light was thrown upon these translucent flat puppets, placed against a flat background, they became magical.
Holding a puppet inspired by the Naga folktale The Elephant’s Eye, Jimmy Chishi pointed out, “These visuals that you see here began with traditional motifs from Naga shawls, Tsungoteptsu (Ao Naga tribe) shawls to be precise. This is a shawl that has a black and white band; and what is unique about the shawl is that the band is painted with black ink as part of ritual-based painting, celebrating head-hunting. So, it’s a headhunter’s shawl. And the painting motifs are interesting. I started studying these, including other motifs like the tattoo marks of the different Naga tribes, the Phoms and the Konyaks especially. But, when I use them in my puppets, I bring my own interpretation to them.”
Using Naga motifs
Jimmy is essentially a painter and sculptor. He developed an interest in puppetry when he was pursuing a course in Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi. What intrigued him was how puppets could be used as a form of communication. “The whole thing about making sculptures that move was happening for a while in India. And I felt, for exploring the Naga folk stories, puppetry could perhaps be one of the most effective forms.”
I learnt from Chishi that there has been no tradition of puppetry in Nagaland. “But there has been a tradition of mask-making, carved by warriors. And the only reference for them is the old photographs by Hameindorf, anthropologists, or those by colonial administrators. The photographs tell you that these masks were being used for some kind of performance. That is one factor that I thought could be brought in from a contemporary point of view. The visual could be used to explore folk stories and folklores in the present context. I thought youngsters might find this visual exploring of folk stories interesting and re-visit their folktales and folk traditions.”
Talking about how he got involved with shadow puppetry, Chishi says, “While working at the Asian Heritage Foundation in Delhi, I made friends with a troupe of professional puppeteers from Andhra Pradesh — the Tholu Bommalata troupe. They were involved in the art from scratch: from making the puppet, curating the leather, making the drums and instruments etc. required for the puppet. We became good friends and I began bringing in a little bit of Naga designs into their puppetry. That is how the conversation began. It was there that I started making leather puppets. In fact, the first time I experienced the visual impact of puppetry was when I watched the Tholu Bommalata performance. I still haven’t forgotten that visual impact.”
Chishi informed, “Shadow puppetry is about using a flat dimension puppet. It’s not three-dimensional; it’s a flat surface. It’s a translucent material, traditionally leather which is used in different forms and cut-outs, and then painted. The form is about using light on this translucent material. So, in a way, it’s actually not shadow; but the light that falls on the translucent flat surface of the puppet, which is again placed against a flat surface like a screen. The origin of this form of puppetry is mostly in the east: China, India; and has religious origin. Say, in Kerala, even today, this form of puppetry is practised, mostly around the temples.” Chishi said that though he mostly engages with shadow puppetry that explores Naga folk stories, he has also been making three-dimensional sculptures, mostly inspired by the Bunraku style from Japan.
Reaching out with puppets
Chishi has introduced Naga motifs and visuals into puppetry, a new idea that he hopes will be taken further. Fellow artist Moumita Ghosh says, “Somewhere people relate puppetry with a tradition. But there is no puppet tradition in Nagaland. So for me, as a viewer and co-artist, what Jimmy is doing is very important as a contemporary artist.”
Chishi first exhibited his leather puppets at the art exhibition, Drifters, that happened in Delhi in 2010. “The curator Rahul Bhattacharya wanted them. Even then the idea was to make the puppets move; we didn’t want them to stay still.” His puppets were also well-received at the recently concluded workshop at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Delhi.
Chishi admitted that “this whole thing is still in the puppet making stage” and that it stands out because it doesn’t define puppetry in a box. “I am looking forward to a time when these shadow puppets will travel to Nagaland. People there are aware of it informally, but they are yet to make a presence in a formal setting.”