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Sunday, December 30, 2001
'Art and Soul

Magic in the shadows
B.N. Goswamy

I have three of them in my own home, all framed and lit from behind, and I have lived in their gentle glow for years: Vishnu, blue-complexioned and four-armed, carrying his great ayudhas, the conch-shell seen most prominently among them; Saraswati, goddess of learning, seated on her hamsa-vehicle, vina and book in hands, fixing the viewer with her gaze; Krishna, languid figure, standing under a tree, playing upon his flute. I speak of course of leather puppets. They are old, although not truly old; the brilliance of their colours is now not what it must have been when first made; and there is some smudging around the areas where the players’ nimble hands must so often have been. One realises at once that here, in our home, they are well out of their original performance context; also, that, framed, they are ‘frozen’ in a manner of speaking, these limbs not having moved for years. But there is still something majestic and seductive about them. And, for me, their presence is strangely reassuring.

A heroic figure: Leather puppet from Karnataka; 19th century
A heroic figure: Leather puppet from Karnataka; 19th century

Few people, I realise, know much about leather puppets — many I suspect are not even aware that such a thing existed — judging from the reactions of guests who happen to see them in our home. But, not to know about them is to deny oneself entry into a magical world. For, like so many other performance-oriented arts in our land — the Pabuji ki phad of Rajasthan, for example, or the scrolls that the patuas of Bengal move about with — they were something like pathways to a land of enchantment, as it were. As wandering performers, those ‘picture-showmen’ of old, held their ‘shows’, invariably crowds of people would gather. Images — in this case shadows of images — passed in front of the viewers’ eyes in rapid succession, imagined spaces crowded with gods and heroes and demons came to occupy minds, event upon moving event unfolded.

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Music filled the air, the narrators’ voices sank and soared, and stories as wonderful as they were fresh — despite having been told countless times — kept being told: exciting minds, touching hearts, setting free the imagination. Even today, in the pampered, brazen age of television and films, the magic that these performances are capable of weaving remains potent.

As I realised the other day, in the Crafts Museum in Delhi where, in the village complex/craft demonstration area, a troupe of leather puppeteers was performing. The audience consisted, at least at that moment, almost entirely of young boys and girls: all from some affluent school, neatly turned out in smart uniforms. And I saw all of them sitting crowded in that ‘village’ shed, watching the performance with rapt attention, wide-eyed, as leather figures flitted behind a large cloth screen, now merging in the shadows, now coming up close and displaying all their coloured plumage, as it were. Squeals of delight would escape from the children’s lips and be heard all over the sprawling courtyard, and wild spontaneous clapping, as Jatayu, the great bird, challenged Ravana and nearly overpowered him, or Hanumana mocked Indrajit who, with all his might, was unable to move even by an inch the monkey-god’s firmly planted leg. These children were no strangers to television, one can be sure, nor unfamiliar with the world of expensive ‘comics’. And yet, one could see, this show meant something special to them, was yielding them a different experience. The energy that was there in the performance was travelling towards them in its entirety, the linearity of music and the unintelligibility of words used by the Kannada narrators notwithstanding. They might not have been able to take in the great skills with which the leather puppets had been made, or the daring stylisation in the articulation of forms — both eyes placed laterally on a face in true profile, for instance, or taut bodies ceaselessly straining against their own outlines — but these children were responding, in the visceral way in which children alone can, to sheer magic.

The troupe of leather puppeteers in the Crafts Museum was performing in the context of an important, and delightful, exhibition of leather puppets that was currently on there. In that elegantly mounted show, one could see the leather figures outside of their performance context, and from close, ranging as puppets do in their wonderful variety, from China and Indonesia to as far west as Turkey. But the focus was clearly, and naturally, upon Indian leather puppets, a large number of them drawn from the collection of the Chitra Kala Parishad of Bangalore, and one could take them in slowly, in all their magnificence. Here was an opportunity not only to gaze and admire, but also to learn. And to pick up meaningful facts. Such as the fact that there are references to ‘shadow puppets’ in Sanskrit texts as early as the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, even perhaps the Mahabharata. Or the fact that leather puppetry in India seems to have originated in Maharashtra and from there travelled, among other areas, to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh where distinct variants evolved over time. What riches, one says to oneself, what excitement, lurks in this world that so many of us do not even know, exists.

A tiered system

Not much has been written in India on leather puppets even though, characteristically, a great many foreign scholars have addressed themselves to the theme. M.S. Nanjunda Rao’s book, Leather Puppetry in Karnataka, which was placed in the Crafts Museum exhibition as a reference work, was thus an exception. I found it filled with painstakingly researched detail and illustrated with some of the most exquisite examples of leather puppets, even if, in its text, it meanders somewhat at places. Among the nuggets of information I found in it is the fact that, traditionally, leather puppets were made from hides of different animals: deer, goat, buffalo. But even here there was a system at work. Thus, noble figures, like those of deities and heroes — Rama, Krishna, Kaushalya, Hanumana, for example — were made only of deer-hide, while demons and ordinary folk were made of goat or buffalo-hide. Considering that it was, ordinarily, unthinkable that sacred ‘images’ be made of something impure, like leather, was this — choosing for such figures the ‘noblest’ among these available materials — a way of resolving a basic contradiction?

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