Tolu Bommalata, the shadow puppet theatre, has been popular not only in Andhra Pradesh, but also in Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Orissa as well. While the puppets of Kerala, Maharashta, and Orissa are traditionally black and white, the Karnataka, Tamilnadu, and Andhra puppets are multi-coloured. The Andhra puppets are larger in size, with separate parts of the various limbs stitched loosely for better articulation. The earliest mass medium using coloured images, the shadow-puppet theatre has always been popular among rural folk, combining entertainment with moral instruction.
A general belief is that the art of puppetry was prevalent in this part of the country even by the beginning of the Christian era. It is also believed that this art was carried from here to the South-East Asian countries where Indians had colonised.
The Andhra puppets are the largest multi-coloured puppets in India. The usual size of a puppet ranges between 5X3 to 6X3-1/2 feet. There are even larger figures. A Ganniyam or puppet box usually holds 100 puppets. These hundred-odd figures are used to present both Ramayana and Mahabharata stories. Some characters come in several sizes, according to the needs of the story. For example, there would be at least four figures of Hanuman in a ganiyam ranging from a small one of 1/2 X 1/2 foot size to a large one of 7 X 3-1/2 feet size.
The head and body are held together with a bamboo stick so that the figure is stiff when held aloft against the screen. Since the puppet is coloured on both sides, it can be used both ways depending upon the direction of the head required to suit a scene, especially when the character is engaged in conversation.
A stage with a white screen is a prerequisite for a performance. Unlike string puppets, which are operated in front of a screen, leather puppets appear behind the screen. The entire manipulation also takes place behind the screen. The white screen usually 8 X 6 feet (for larger performances, it would be 10 X 6 feet or even 12 X 8 feet) - is stretched and fixed to poles on all four sides. The screen has to be stretched tightly, without creases, to afford a clear view from the other side. Usually the curtain is about 1-1/2, from the ground, which part is covered with black cloth.
For illumination, two lamps are placed a couple of feet behind the screen at a height of about six feet. In the old days a row of earthenware lamps was used, lit with castor oil. Now performers use petromax lamps, even electric lights. Care has to be taken to light up the screen uniformly so that the puppets glow uniformly on the screen. The old style of lighting achieved a more natural and uniform illumination while with the aid of petromax and electric bulbs, the light is less diffused and more concentrated.
The manipulation of the puppets is intricate and subtle. The free moving limbs have to be manipulated simultaneously; the one-piece figures without joints are more easily managed. The manipulation must achieve a stylised effect while retaining the realistic visual impact made by the puppet. The important thing is to achieve the right posture of the character concerned.
The 'text' the puppeteers use for their performance is not written document. It is collected (and orally transmitted) from different sources at different times in the development of the art. For example, the Ramayana story is drawn from different written and oral texts. The narrative part comes from the Ranganatha Ramayanam. The text is chosen partly because of its conversational idiom, necessary for a theatre performance, and partly because of its musicality. The poems are taken from the Molla Ramayanam and the daruvus from the Kucikonda Ramayanam. The different components are put together appropriately in a performance. It is not known when these different textual elements came to be assimilated in Andhra puppetry.
Verbal improvisation mainly occurs during the humorous interludes, which do not depend upon any text. Audiences eagerly await the arrival of the comic characters, Bangarakka and Kethigadu. Through these minor characters, the puppeteers bring relief to the serious tone of the story. There are duets specially written for these two characters who have become synonymous with folk humour in Andhra. They are recalled with delight by the spectators. In the olden days the relative merits of puppeteers were decided on the basis of their improvisations with these comic characters.
Music is the soul of a puppet show. The dances, conversations, fights, descriptions, and even humorous episodes come to life through appropriate songs and poems, recited in the proper raga.
A group consists of about eight performers, of whom two male and two female members are the manipulator singers. Three instrumentalists accompany the songs on the harmonium, Mridangam and cymbals. In southern Andhra Pradesh, the Mukhavina is also used.
The shadow-puppet theatre was for long the chief entertainment of the village folk of Andhra Pradesh. The puppeteers practised the art professionally, and had no other source of livelihood. But things have changed in the last 70 or 80 years. The flourishing art of puppetry is now almost on the path of extinction.
Historically speaking, there are two distinct shadow-puppet traditions in Andhra Pradesh, the ancient and the comparatively modern. The earliest mention of the ancient tradition occurs in a 13th-century poetic work, Panditaradhya Caritra, written by Palkuriki Somanatha. In the first canto, Somanatha mentions two types of puppets - those that are manipulated behind White curtains and those that are manipulated with rods. While the former are leather puppets and the latter are rod puppets. This reference proves beyond doubt that the shadow-puppet theatre had a well-established tradition in the Andhra region by the 13th century.
An inscription dated 1208 shows that in that year Vipparula Kondapa and Gundapa donated a village to the puppeteer, Sutradhari Bommalayya. Many other inscriptions, epics and legends contain reference to the existence, popularity and scholarship of puppeteers in different parts of Andhra Pradesh. A 1521 inscription shows that a group of puppeteers were honoured with royalty. A textbook of mathematics, written at the instance of a puppeteer, commended the worth of a puppeteer called Bommalata Kala who, by his virtuosity in the art, had become close to Krishnadevaraya, the great south Indian king, and was honoured by him.
Similarly, an inscription belonging to Cuddapah district in AP (1928) says that two master puppeteers - Chandramayya and Bommalata Amrita Kavi - had donated a village, Chidipirala of Kamalapuram Taluk, Cuddapah district to another puppeteer, Peda Chittayya, in order that he might continue to perform shadow plays. Some of the puppeteers of the day were evidently rich enough to donate a village to other puppeteers for the propagation of their art!
There are many references to shadow plays in the Telugu classics. The central interest of a puppet show is the story, says a late 16th century poetic text, Gangavataranam. Another text Candrangada Caritra, (c.1650), describes a whole puppet show and the different elements of the show. The curtain, the audience seated before it, the commentator behind the curtain, the lights that throw the shadows on the screen, the actors, and the puppets, these, the poet says, are the essential components of a puppet show. Those puppet shows were performed all through the night is indicated in another text, "Pancali Parin ayamu". References in Bhaskara Satakam and Vemana Satakam throw light on the contemporary significance of puppet shows.
These references indicate that the art of shadow puppetry occupied an important place in rural entertainment in the Andhra country at least from the 13th century. All the instances refer to native puppeteers who, in many cases, were known by their profession - Bommalata Vallu and sometimes carried it as their surname together with their family names. There are, however, later inscriptions of the 19th century, which indicate a different set of non-Telugu people who had settled down in this part of the country and earned their livelihood by shadow-puppet performances.
One gets such information, curiously enough, from a Telangana inscription recovered from Guduru in Warangal district. It mentions the puppeteer's art and especially the name of "Sutradhari Kommajanaha, Baraha", indicating it is an inscription ordered to be written by Sutradhari Kommoji. Similarly, the Panugallu inscription contains references to another Sutradhari Brahmoju (or Brahmoji).
The Ares are known as Are Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, a name which suggests their assimilation into Telugu society. The Ares themselves prefer to be called Balijas or Balija Kshatriyas or Bondilis as they are called in Maharashtra. They were mostly itinerant, wandering nine months a year from village to village, staying at each place for a few days. In more recent times, however, they have settled down at different places, doing odd jobs. The villages where these puppeteers have settle range from Sringavarapukota in Vishakapatnam district to Bommalatalapalli in Anantapur district. A group of about 40 Are puppeteer families made Madhavapatnam near Kakinada their home in 1937. Families in southern Andhra Pradesh do not have a permanent home and are still itinerant.