BOMMALATTAM: TAMIL NADU’S DEAR PUPPETRY

Content research and written by Prasanna Balakrishna

Image Source: tamilnadu.com

Bommalattam, the puppet show or puppet dance, is one of the oldest art forms in India, being especially popular in South India. Bommalattam originated in Tamil Nadu, a state that has a reputation for being the birthplace of various arts, entertainments, and dances. Performed with puppets in temples during various festivals, the performances may last for a week or ten days, usually continuing overnight.

Bommalattam was also used during the freedom struggle to promote nationalistic zeal.

BEAUTY AND TASTE

Bommalattam puppets may be made of cloth, wood, leather, or other materials. The puppets are controlled through strings or wires suspended from above and tied to the hands and legs of the puppets. Highly skilled and experienced players stand behind a screen, unseen by the audience, and move the puppets.

A Bommalattam troupe consists five to eight members, but a single puppeteer presents the whole show. An assistant hands the artist the right puppet and musicians repeat the songs after their leader.

The shows begin with the homage to God and continue with humorous stories. The buffoon is an extremely hilarious character displaying fun and frolic.

Bommalattam performances are closely associated with religious and ceremonial events such as temple festivals. The shows were also sponsored by individuals for the fulfillment of vows, thanksgiving for marriages and childbirth, or the welfare of the community, among other purposes. In earlier days, Bommalattam was used to tell religious stories, especially ethical stories . People used to believe that it was auspicious to host a puppet show, as this could shrug off evil spirits from their villages.

POPULARITY

Bommalattam is very famous for its traditional tales such as Valli Kalyanam (Valli’s marriage), Sita Kalyanam (Sita’s wedding), Harichandra, Lava Kusa, Nallatangal Kathai and Markandeyan Kathai (Markandeyan’s story). The traditional puppet show has also been used these days to spread modern messages, such as creating awareness for family planning and AIDS.

Some puppeteers perform in a tent and charge a fee; but the art is facing extinction because of lack of patronage.

HISTORY

Great performers,Epic reciters, storytellers, picture-showman, and clowns had become popular since the 10th century A.D. after the breakdown of classical tradition. Since puppets were used to portray gods and heroes, Bommalattam was very popular during India’s medieval period. Large crowds would gather and fill the streets to watch the performances. The puppeteers,  were always present in village markets and fairs on the occasions of civic and religious functions, and also for important household events.

There are two forms of traditional puppet shows practiced in Tamil Nadu: Bommalattam (string puppet shows) and Thol Bommalattam (shadow puppet show).

Bommalattam combines the techniques of both rod puppets and string puppets. The strings for manipulation are tied to an iron ring which the puppeteer wears like a crown on his head. A few puppets have jointed arms and hands that are manipulated by rods. The wooden Bommalattam puppets are the largest, heaviest, and most articulate of all traditional Indian marionettes. A puppet may be as big as 4.5 feet in height and weigh up to ten kilograms.

The leather shadow puppets used in Thol Bommalattam are flat figures that are pressed against the screen with a strong light shining from behind. The puppets create silhouettes or colorful shadows for the viewers in front of the screen.

SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES

Apart from the individual puppeteers, there are also many institutions involved in the promotion of Bommalattam. Some of them follow:

The Tamil Nadu Traditional, Cultural & Educational Charitable Trust endeavors to popularize the art of Tamil Nadu among students and youth. Tamil Nadu folk arts such Mayil Attam, BommalattamKummi, Kai Silambu Attam, and others are especially valued and protected.

The Government of India offers the Scheme for Scholarships to Young Artistes in Different Cultural Fields, which includes Tholu Bommalattam of Tamil Nadu.

Mahatma Gandhi University offers core courses on the folk and ritual traditions of Tamil Nadu.

The Centre for Cultural Resources and Training conducts a variety of training programs for school teachers, teacher trainers, and educational administrators so that students may know the importance of the culture of our country.

Modern students are interested in learning the art of Bommalattam and some of them have even performed during their annual day functions. It is hoped that this art will flourish again in the hands of the upcoming generation.

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