From shadow to light

Veranna's team behind the screen

As the lights inside the auditorium grew dim, the shadow of a figurine clad in the traditional Indian attire appeared on a small, brightly-lit screen. People in the auditorium clapped with excitement when a train moved from one corner of the screen to the other with a loud whistle. They had gathered in large numbers at Ballari Ranga Mandir to witness Bapu, a shadow leather puppetry presented by Nadoja Belagal Veeranna and his team to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The effective portrayal of the Mahatma’s life got a standing ovation from the audience as the show ended. 

This is one of the many non-traditional plots that Veeranna and his team are enthralling the audience with. Veeranna is one of the pioneers of shadow leather puppetry, a form of folk theatre practised by the people of Shille Kyata (or Kille Kyata) community in the state. Popularly called ‘Togalu Gombeyata’ in Kannada, this folk form employs leather figurines or puppets made out of goatskin. The hide is processed into translucent seasoned leather on which the outline of a particular character is drawn and then cut into desired shapes. The characters are coloured with either vegetable or chemical dye. The puppets vary from one to six feet in size, depending on the characters and the screen. 

During the show, a bright light is placed behind a thin white screen. The puppeteer holds the puppets between the light and the screen using long, thin sticks. The puppets walk, dance, fight and perform appropriately in sync with the background music and spoken word of the manipulator. Song and dialogue of the male figures are rendered by the male members, while that of the female figures are delivered by the women in the troupe. Chorus songs, war cries, loud exclamations and musical accompaniments provide a perfect background to the play.

Tryst with puppets

Though Belagal Veeranna belongs to the community that traditionally performs leather puppetry for livelihood, he spent his early life with Bayalata and professional drama troupes. During the period, he mastered the different facets of professional theatre like narration, script writing, music, singing and direction. In later years, circumstances forced him to embrace leather puppetry for a livelihood. He performed his maiden leather puppetry show in 1986 at Ravindra Kalakshetra under the government sponsorship. Panchavati, based on the Ramayana, was performed under the banner of  Sri Ramanjaneya Togalugombe Mela Trust. It was them that Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the driving force behind the renaissance of theatre in independent India, noticed Veeranna’s powerful voice and good diction. She insisted on Veeranna to take up the role of the bhagavatha, a ventriloquist who narrates the story and renders voice in varying emotions to different characters of the puppet show.

Since then, the man who excelled on stage gracefully gave way to the puppets. Financial help came from Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi for Veeranna’s trust to make new puppets, musical instruments and a foldable screen. 

Fifty years of his active association with the professional theatre prompted Veeranna to try something different than the traditional leather puppetry. He meticulously scripted his puppetry shows for an hour or two. All the aspects that would attract a viewer, such as a gripping narrative, a proper blend of music and dialogue, editing that interestingly links different episodes were incorporated.

His first effort in this direction was a puppetry show on India’s freedom movement. The man who never had formal schooling read and referred to books on Indian history. The show, a unique experiment in shadow leather puppetry, attracted people from across the country. Veeranna recalls, “We gave nearly 25 shows in Bihar. The response was such that people clapped and whistled during Mangal Pandey’s fierce face-off with the British.”

The success of this show resulted in him conceptualising Bapu, a theatrical show on the life of the Mahatma. This was first staged on October 2, 1991, in New Delhi. “Nadoja V T Kale has been sketching all my characters and Y Raghavendra Rao wrote interesting scripts for my widely acclaimed shows,” says Veeranna. The sketches are given to the artisans at Nimmalakunta village in Anantapur district to get the leather puppets ready for the intended shows. About 8-10 scenes and 75-80 puppets are used for a one-hour show.  

On the suggestion of scholar, researcher M M Kalburgi, Veeranna brought Basavanna’s life on stage through puppets. Pravadi Basaveshwara, thus created, was also sponsored by Gadag’s Tontadarya Math. 

“The puppets used in all these shows are smaller and vary in size from two to three feet. A small screen of 11 x 8 feet is used for such shows. The ones used in traditional leather puppetry to portray the characters of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are usually big, measuring four to six feet,” remarks Veeranna. The team has even staged Kuvempu’s magnum opus Sri Ramayana Darshanam with bigger figurines.

Issue-based shows

In addition to historical plays, Ramanjaneya Togalugombe Mela has toured most of the villages in North Karnataka with tailor-made leather puppets to spread awareness on social and health-related issues like child labour, literacy and AIDS for nearly 10 years and these shows were sponsored by the state government.

Veeranna has staged shows in foreign countries as well, on an                 invitation. The octogenarian has been conferred with many state and national awards for his untiring work in the field of shadow leather puppetry. At this age also, he actively engages in puppet shows and experiments with theme and presentation. He is now working on developing a play on Gautama Buddha.

It takes a considerable amount of time and research to develop a one-hour show. His wife, children and grandchildren contribute in their own capacity to shape his projects. As we were discussing, Manjunath C, an admirer of Veeranna, remarked, “It seems, the future of leather puppetry is safe in the hands of your grandchildren,” Veeranna replied, “One should sincerely play their assigned roles, be it my children, the government, academicians and everyone who cares for these folk forms.”

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From shadow to light

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