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Published: Verve Magazine, Nostalgia, 75th Black-and-white Issue, July 2009

Taking off from an internationally acclaimed Chinese film incorporating shadow puppetry to a peek into the prevalence of this art form in India, Sitanshi Talati-Parikh flits through the darkness and goes behind the scenes


It was nearly a decade ago, at a seminar on popular culture and politics in Philadelphia that I first came across the international award-winning Chinese movie To Live, directed by Zhang Yimou and based on a novel of the same name by Yu Hua. (The film was banned in Mainland China, due to its satirical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the communist government). Dark and captivating, the movie stirred something in me, a sense of loss and belonging, and sadness at seeing life wasted and then a burgeoning of spirit, upon seeing it resuscitated. The wealthy protagonist, Xu Fugui, gambles away his fortune and family property and is forced to start a shadow puppet troupe to support his family. Against the backdrop of the Chinese Civil War and later, the Cultural Revolution, we watch events unfold with heart-breaking resonance, as a bleak story simply gets bleaker; while his classical shadowy art form becomes a means to light up his otherwise miserable life.


A darting shadow hovers tentatively against the backdrop, and with a resounding sense of confidence, it moves along, bobbing about with a sense of menace, joined by another; creating the illusion of moving images, and a clear sense of good and evil. Story-telling through the art of shadow play or shadow puppetry weaves a sense of drama around a story or epic saga – and can be found in many countries across the world. In India, the leather puppets – sometimes translucent and sometimes opaque, black and white or coloured – represent gods, goddesses and apsaras (celestial beings), which are held in high esteem and stored separately from the demon-puppets. Historically, the tradition of Chhaya Natak (shadow theatre) seemed to have existed in Gujarat a thousand years ago and migrated to Maharashtra; with wandering tribes, spreading their art further south.


From religious doctrine to entertainment through education on social ethics and philosophy, the puppeteers tend to pick up on the themes of Mahabharata and Ramayana, using the sculptures and friezes of the region as inspiration for the figures of the puppets. Not only are they used in the retelling of epics, puppets are also considered divine creations. Most puppet shows in India commence with prayers, and when the puppets decay, they are sent floating away on rivers after performing the worship. Shadow theatre is still popular in many parts of Asia, and besides being a source of pure entertainment, it also serves as a fabulous entry point into the darker areas of character, personality and soul, touched upon not just by the storyline, but also by the technique.


Other Puppeteering Countries


China, Taiwan, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, Australia