Behind the veil of fame, an untold story of leather puppetry artists’ financial struggles

As Dalavai Sivamma immerses the goat hide in a vessel of boiling water, her son Durgesh uses a blade to scrape the surface of dried skin to remove the remnants of fur and ensure a smooth finish.

Going by the gruelling task and her simple attire, it is hard to believe that Sivamma is a national award-winning leather puppet artist (2019). Not just her, there are 12 national award winners from her community, including a Padma Shri awardee, Dalavai Chalapathi Rao.

The glory of this dusty little village of Nimmalakunta in the newly-carved out Sri Sathya Sai district of Andhra Pradesh is not known even in the district headquarters town of Puttaparthi. Situated 12 km from Dharmavaram town, known for authentic handloom saris, this sleepy village has 150 houses, half of them belonging to this tribe called Tholubommalatagallu.

Almost five centuries ago, the leather puppetry artists were hailed as the champions of Sanatana Dharma for promoting epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata among the unlettered masses, in the garb of providing entertainment. In the current scenario when the modes of entertainment have drastically changed, their successors are struggling to make ends meet, with less than an invitation to perform in an entire month.

Maratha roots

The artists have their roots firmly entrenched somewhere in the Maratha land, the exact location not known to them today. The nomadic community used to move in bullock carts to reach villages, perform puppet shows during temple festivals and village fairs, earn princely remuneration from the kings, landlords or local chieftains and then move on to another village.

Since their performances always revolved around the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the storytellers were hailed for spreading moral values through noble characters like Rama, Krishna and Arjuna. “Though the characters were made available in the form of books and wall paintings by then, our ancestors were the first to creatively visualise how Rama or Ravana or Hanuman looked like. They designed the puppets accordingly and presented them before the audience,” says Dalavai Kullayappa, another son of Sivamma. Kullayappa is also a two-time national award winner for the same art form, having been honoured in 2010 and 2017.

The puppetry artists were the most-sought-after in making nights lively during fairs. While their days are spent at the temple, the villagers are engaged during the nights through cultural art forms like music and dance shows, puppetry etc.

The artists wield the thread tied to the puppets as tall as 8 feet and perform in front of a huge white screen measuring 10feet x 12 feet. “Behind the screen, a huge bonfire was made in the olden days to provide the required lighting effect, which was later replaced by a series of oil wick lamps and now, electrical bulbs have taken over. Even as the puppets played their respective roles, the message is conveyed by the vocalist and the instrumentalists handling the tabla, harmonium and cymbals,” explains Kullayappa.

As the nomads toured across the neighbouring kingdoms and came back with amusing information, they also doubled up as spies for the Maratha kings over time. “Life turned miserable when the Mughals tried to hunt our ancestors down, which resulted in mass exodus of our communities towards Karnataka and bordering villages in Andhra Pradesh for safety,” says Kullayappa. Even today, these families speak Marathi at home.

Diversifying to art pieces

With patronage to leather puppet shows dwindling over time and with the community not adept in any other source of livelihood, the artists have diversified into making wall hangings, lampshades, photo frames etc. “Our products are available in the price range of ₹50 to ₹3 lakh. But not many know that such products are available with us,” says Durgesh wryly.

The families have taken up designing of newer products recently, such as waist belts — an ethnic leather version of ‘Vaddanam’ worn by women, fridge magnets, table-top decor with LED lamps etc. A recent workshop by Megha Manjunath, an empanelled designer from the Directorate of Handicrafts, functioning under the Union Ministry of Textiles, offered tips to the women.

A market survey conducted by the Ministry found that elite buyers in metropolitan cities patronised Nimmalakunta products more, albeit with small yet high-value purchases. This shows that awareness must percolate to the upper middle classes, who have the financial wherewithal to buy more frequently and in larger volumes.

Whither patronage?

Kullayappa bagged the UNESCO Award of Excellence in Malaysia in 2012 and received a honorary degree from the University of Vietnam. His name found entry in India Book of Records and Telugu Book of Records, and yet, he stares at a bleak future.

“I have participated in over 200 national and international exhibitions. All these records are great, but where are we headed,” Kullayappa throws a pointed question. These villagers recently performed a puppet show during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Veerabhadra Swamy temple in Lepakshi in January this year, which gave them a faint ray of hope.

While government patronage alone is not enough, they seek a change in people’s tastes and preferences to promote native art forms. Though the families in Nimmalakunta are training their younger generation in the art form, intending to pass on the centuries-old legacy for posterity, they are not quite sure whether puppetry will ensure a fruitful and remunerative career to their children.

Similar to the larger-than-life images from the puppets shining on the white screen, the awards and records have apparently given Nimmalakunta a bloated image disproportionate to its livelihood requirements.

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