Leather weathers well

There is a popular belief that art, craft, culture and tradition are slowly dying with the onslaught of modernism. But, contrary to this belief, many art and craft forms are not only surviving, but thriving, as the artisans and craftsmen have adapted themselves to changing times and needs.

Home decor items made of leather Photos by author

Take for instance the leather puppet makers of Nimmalakunta, a village in Dharmavaram mandal in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. For centuries, every one in the village was involved in either making puppets or hosting shows. These puppet shows are called Tolu Bommalata. These performances took place at night in the open grounds of the villages. But, with the passage of time and advent of new media of entertainment like the television, the demand for puppet show declined.

The craft of making leather puppets is inextricably linked to the traditional folk form of cultural expression. It has survived and even taken new forms by working on the potential of this art. To cater to the current market trends, they make a variety of things like lampshades, wall hangings, mirror frames and notebooks covers. You can get leather puppets custom-made as home decor.

In conventional lampshades, synthetic fibres are used pleated between circular frames or frames of other shapes. But now these artists have learnt to adapt their leather art to lampshades. Shinde Sriramulu, a national award winning artist, continues to practice the art of his ancestors. He makes a variety of items besides traditional puppets. He exhibits and sells his work in exhibitions across the country.

The origin of the art goes back to the 16th century, to the reign of King Kona Reddy, a ruler of the Vijayanagar Empire. A Telugu manuscript entitled Ramayana Ranganathana was composed specifically for this puppet theatre. Besides providing a dramatic text of the famous epic story, the manuscript also includes instructions for the construction and decoration of puppets.

Themes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata dominate this puppetry. The main community engaged in this craft is the Marathi Balija, and it is said that these artisans originally migrated from the Marathwada region to Andhra Pradesh during the Maratha rule.

The  puppets are made of goat skin. The skin is cleaned thoroughly in hot water, then soaked in a pit of limewater for about 10 days. This softens the upper surface, which is then vigorously cleaned with a chisel to get a translucent surface. After this initial cleaning, the leather is soaked again, this time along with kadaka (leaf) powder, which imparts a light brown colour to the leather. The leather is then thoroughly dried, for as long as a week, depending on the weather conditions. After drying, the leather is ready for designs to be drawn on it.

Artisans of three different skills collectively work on each puppet. The first skill involves image drawing and cutting, bringing out the personality of puranic figures seen in temple sculptures and idols. Every figure is cut into several parts such as head, torso, hip, legs and hands to facilitate movement. This drawing and cutting is done by senior craftsmen.
The second skill is ornamentation and dressing, by perforating countless tiny holes that let light through to the screen in the shape and design of costumes and jewellery.

The third skill is to fill in colours according to traditional patterns. While black, red and green are some of the colours commonly used for puppets, female figures and sages are characteristically depicted in yellow. All the parts are then loosely tied, allowing free movement at each joint. Three stitched bamboo sticks make the puppet workable. It takes 30-40 days to be completed.

Traditionally, these puppets were illuminated with oil lamps behind the screen to give soft and red light. Later, Petromax pressure lamps or red electrical bulbs are used.

The puppeteers of Nimmalakunta have refused to part with the traditional art they nourished and cherished for centuries. They have reinvented the art and it continues to thrive.

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