Forging New Paths for Kerala’s Tolpavakoothu Leather Shadow Puppetry Tradition

Authored by: Claudia Orenstein

The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance

Print publication date:  July  2014
Online publication date:  July  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415705400
eBook ISBN: 9781315850115
Adobe ISBN: 9781317911722


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In his 1999 essay “If Gandhi Could Fly … Dilemmas and Directions in Shadow Puppetry in India,” Salil Singh analyzed attempts of performers at the National Shadow Puppetry Festival in Dharmasthala, Karnataka, to revitalize their endangered art forms. While many troupes at the festival offered traditional shows based on India’s Hindu epics, government agencies commissioned companies from five states to take episodes from the life of Gandhi as a new subject, hoping to reach out to contemporary audiences. For Singh the experiment proved unsuccessful:

Puppeteers in whose hands shadows of mythical heroes had danced and cavorted, accompanied by passionate songs and cascading music, suddenly found themselves struggling awkwardly with bland images of a national hero, uninspired and uninspiring.

(Singh 1999: 154) Singh felt the festival revealed a few distinct paths for shadow puppetry, “either to abandon precedent expediently, without recourse to an equally powerful aesthetic which could propel the art into the future; or to repeat tradition without adapting it to today’s cultural realities.” Puppeteers could also follow the middle path taken by a troupe from the Bellary region of Karnataka and “successfully create an updated folklore outside of the ancient epics, yet not as contemporary as the Gandhi episodes” (Singh 1999: 166).

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