India has the richest variety of types and styles of shadow puppets. Shadow puppets are flat figures. They are cut out of leather, which has been treated to make it translucent. Shadow puppets are pressed against the screen with a strong source of light behind it.
The manipulation between the light and the screen makes silhouettes or colourful shadows, as the case may be, for the viewers who sit in front of the screen. This tradition of shadow puppets survives in Orissa. Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
There are six shadow puppet theatre traditions across different regions in India, which are locally known as: Chamadyacha Bahulya in Maharashtra, Tholu Bommalata in Andhra Pradesh, Togalu Gombeyatta in Karnataka, Tolu Bommalattam in Tamil Nadu, Tolpava Kuthu in Kerala and Ravanachhaya in Odisha.
Togalu, Gombeyatta, Karnataka:
The shadow theatre of Karnataka is known as Togalu Gombeyatta. These puppets are mostly small in size. The puppets however differ in size according to their social status, for instance, large size for kings and religious characters and smaller size for common people or servants.
Tholu Bommalata, Andhra Pradesh:
Tholu Bommalata, Andhra Pradesh’s shadow theatre has the richest and strongest tradition. The puppets are large in size and have jointed waist, shoulders, elbows and knees. They are coloured on both sides. Hence, these puppets throw coloured shadows on the screen.
The music is dominantly influenced by the classical music of the region and the theme of the puppet plays are drawn from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.
Ravana Chhaya, Odisha:
The most theatrically exciting is the Ravanachhaya of Odisha. The puppets are in one piece and have no joints. They are not coloured, hence throw opaque shadows on the screen. The manipulation requires great dexterity, since there are no joints. The puppets are made of deer skin and are conceived in bold dramatic poses. Apart from human and animal characters, many props such as trees, mountains, chariots, etc. are also used. Although. Ravana Chhaya puppets are smaller in size-the largest not more than two feet have no jointed limbs, they create very sensitise and lyrical shadows.
Though these forms have distinct regional identities, languages and dialects in which they are performed, they share a common worldview, aesthetics and themes. The narratives are mainly based on the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Puranas, local myths and tales. They communicate significant messages to the rural community besides entertainment.
The performance begins with an invocation on a ritually set up stage in a village square or a temple courtyard. Stock characters provide comic relief.
A sense of rhythm and dance is inherent in all the traditions, across regions. The puppets are crafted from either goat or deer skin. They are manipulated from behind the screen, where lighting is provided to cast shadows. Puppet performances are a part of festivals, celebrations of special occasions and rituals, and sometimes staged to ward off evil spirits and to invoke the rain gods in times of drought in rural areas.
The geographic locations of the six traditions of shadow puppetry in India, range from Maharashtra in the west of India to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south, and to Odisha in the east. In Andhra Pradesh it is practiced by the Killekyata/Are Kapu community, in Karnataka by the Killekyata/Dayat community, in Kerala by Nair community, in Maharashtra by the Thakar community, in Odisha, the form is known as Ravanachhaya and is practised by the Uhat community, and in Tamil Nadu by the Killekyata community.