Bommalattam: Fortunes of a Fading Folk Art

in Article
Published on: 30 November 2018

Vinod Balakrishnan

Vinod Balakrishnan teaches Creative Writing, Communication and Professional Ethics. He is a motivational speaker, practising poet and yoga enthusiast. He reads on Life Writing, Nation, Indian Writing in English, Cultural Representation and Humour.

P. Bharathiraja, the veteran director of many blockbusters in Tamil cinema, provides us with an insight into his 2008 release, Bommalattam. Bommalattam, he says, is a metaphor for cinema. He goes back to his days of childhood in the village where there were bommalattam (puppet) artists  travelling from village to village narrating tales from the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. The image of the puppeteer manipulating the puppets to recreate a life of men, women and children, and to tell stories about everyday life, fascinated the future director. He talks about the magic of the puppeteer’s fingers that moved to tell those wonderful stories. Cinema has not forgotten its connection with puppetry.


In olden days, bommalattam was a means of mass communication meant to educate the masses about important issues that needed their understanding and participation. It also had aspects of the mass leader preaching to his audience, trying to reach out to many from one point of enunciation. India’s ancient story-telling traditions have kept alive people’s interest in the legends of Lord Krishna; the Bhagavatha Parayanam is one of the oldest story-telling traditions we have in India. Puppetry has had a significant contribution to make in sustaining that tradition.


Puppetry is one of the oldest forms of mass communication reflecting man’s desire to see his own life in the form of narratives. This spectacle has engaged many creative writers—the greatest of them all being Shakespeare who would see the world as a stage. To the puppeteer, his world is that tiny makeshift stage he creates: the screen of about two feet length from where he presents his remarkable tales. Thirukkural, attributed to the sage Thiruvalluvar, is a classic Tamil text which is called the Veda of the Tamils. It has 1330 couplets on every aspect of human conduct and has a chapter titled, Shame. It is about man’s moral conduct. The sage Thiruvalluvar uses the word nanam for shame as a pun. Nanam can mean shame as well as the strings by which the puppeteer controls the puppet. Couplet 1020 says ‘nanahathillariyakka marapavai nanal iyarmarutti etru’. It means that a man’s movement in society without his moral self control that is informed by the sense of shame is similar to (?) (no better than) a puppet show controlled by strings. It also means that the social activity of a person without moral restraint is like a lifeless puppet show.


When Arjuna is despondent on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, thinking that he has to fight his own kin, Krishna tells him that the idea of one’s self is a mere illusion. The truth is that the lord controls everybody like the puppeteer controls the puppets. The classic Tamil epic, Silapathikaram, talks about the misfortunes of the goldsmith Kovalan who, on his visit to Madurai, falls under the charms of Madhavi, the courtesan. When Kovalan finds himself trapped in the clutches of the enchantress Madhavi, Ilango Adigal the poet, describes the situation as that of a puppet who is controlled by the puppeteer.


To the puppeteer every stage is a makeshift one; it is new and it has to be re-erected for every performance. S/He takes out the puppets from their bags and arrange them in the order of their appearance. This ritual goes on backstage even as the stage itself is prepared. The village where the performance is to take place provides the necessary amenities to the artists. There are poles across which the main curtain is stretched ,that need to be fixed. About three to four feet in height, these curtains are meant to hide the puppeteer who carries on the manipulation from behind the frame. The stage is collapsible, made of canvas or jute, and so has to be ironed out before it can be prepared.


Like any traditional art, puppetry also follows the ritual of propitiating the gods. Ancient lore regards Lord Shiva as the originator of the fine arts. Rhythm from which music emerges and music which is rhythmical, evolves into dance. Elegant movements of the dance that go on to narrate episodes from the Puranas which is drama, all, flow out of the genius of Lord Shiva. All traditional arts such as Bommalattam, Bhagavathatta, Vayalatta, Yakshagana, Kathakali, Theyyam begin by propitiating the gods. Lord Vinayaka or Ganesha is propitiated along with Lord Shiva. Any performance needs to go on uninterrupted and without any hurdle. So, Lord Ganesha who is also Vigneshwara, the remover of all obstacles, is propitiated in the beginningt. The members of the crew along with the patrons of the performance come together in a gesture of community prayer. While the prayer goes on, one or two members of the crew settle down backstage to string the puppets. Tributes are paid to the great sages and gurus such as Bharathamuni and his Natyasastra from which bommalattam draws its performative aesthetics.


Kudanthai Chandher is the last of the traditional puppeteers who has kept bommalattam alive in Tamil Nadu. A trip down memory lane takes us through the vicissitudes of bommalattam which once upon a time was a powerful medium for entertaining the masses as well as educating them. Chandher who began his career in 1962 as a stand-up comedian and a poet, started performing bommalattam in 1970. He saw that the art form was too bound by tradition. Only stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha and the Puranas were performed. The rebel in him wanted to break the iron cast of tradition; that is the reason for Chandher training in traditional puppetry.


Those were days of bommalattam’s glory. The biggest figure in puppetry was Kumbakonam Mani Iyyer, who was recognized with the title, Bommalatta Bhoopathy—the universal lord of bommalattam. Mani Iyyer’s repertory was called Mangala Gana Sabha. Though Mani Iyyer was the first to popularise bommalattam, its origins go back to the time before Independence. We are reminded that in the district of Tanjore in a place called Seevandiyur there lived a puppeteer belonging to the low caste. Legend has it that even Sathyajit Ray visited him. But after his death no one took the art forward. Chandher pegs this history around 1947- 48 or sometime before Independence. In those days puppetry was accompanied by songs. Hence, it was Sangeetha Bommalattam. The harmonium and the mridangam were the accompanying instruments.


Mani Iyyer, whose puppet shows were on religious themes, groomed two disciples— Manikyavasakam who later started the Mayavaram Gananadar Nataka Sabha and A.S. Balasubramaniyam, who also hailed from Mayavaram. The latter later settled in Chennai. In those days the puppeteer wore around his waist a girdle of bells. So, when there were hand movements there was also the accompaniment of musical rhythms. In the heyday of puppetry the puppets were articulated through twelve strings. This meant that every part of the puppet’s body could be manipulated by the puppeteer. Like many secret arts of India the secret of controlling the puppet through twelve strings died with preceptors like Mani Iyyer, Manikavasam and Balasubramaniyam who did not impart this precious knowledge to succeeding generations.


It is a strange fact that no one managed to learn the skill to control puppets with twelve strings. Even children and near relatives were denied this knowledge. The exception to this practice is the transfer of knowledge to the Murugan Bommalatta Sabha in Kumbakonam. In those days Kumbakonam was part of the Tanjore kingdom that was ruled by the Serfoji kings who were the sole patrons of bommalattam. The first puppets were actually wooden dolls that the Serfoji kings gave to the artists. Different varieties of wood were used to make the dolls. While Rama, Vishnu and Vinayaka were carved out of sandalwood, the rakshasas (akin to demons) were made from ebony and tamarind. Red sandalwood was used to carve the goddesses while ordinary human characters were made from inexpensive wood.


The traditional practice in households was to give teething infants wooden toys. Perhaps this was the initiation rite for a person into the world of bommalattam. The sculptor worked on wood and made the faces lifelike. In the beginning, the wooden puppets were almost life-sized. It took the sculptor up to six months to complete a puppet. It was a detailed process where wood had to be, first, seasoned by letting it soak in water for some time. It is believed that the ancient puppeteer was not only skilful with the strings but possessed an equal skill in carving lifelike dolls.


Today, the few puppeteers in the show business of bommalattam, who have no knowledge of carving,  turn to the temple sculptors called sthapathis. So the process is inevitably a long one as the sthapathi must find time away from his temple commitments which involve sculpting in stone. The tediousness of turning out puppets is making puppeteers look at viable alternatives. In fact, wooden puppets are not preferred on account of their heaviness.


However, in Dharmapuri District, wooden puppets form the staple of katta Bommalattam. Puppetry is performed as street shows. Katta means wood and the puppets thus made are three to four feet tall. They look slightly out of proportion with an enlarged head and wide eyes. This apparent distortion serves to provide a natural look when the puppets are put on stage and a few hundred people gather to watch the performance. While performing katta bommalattam the puppeteer remains seated behind the screen. This is unlike the other puppet shows where the puppeteer remains standing. The reason for the puppeteer to remain seated is that he or she can have greater control and ease of manipulation of the very heavy puppets.


Kudanthai Chandher admits that today, there is only one man who possesses the skill to manipulate all the twelve strings. His name is Sankaranathan. The Government of India has honoured him with the Padma Shree. But these days he is ailing and is unable to perform. Sankaranathan has trained his son, Murugan who runs the Murugan Bommalatta Sabha in Mayiladuthurai. As for Chandher, he admits that his son is not interested in bommalattam.


However, the master puppeteer has not given up. He has identified a few youngsters to whom he imparts training in puppetry. These days Chandher performs with hand puppets and glove puppets. Chandher is also handy with improvising puppets. He uses cost effective materials such as a soft drink bottle. He cuts off the head of the bottle and puts the puppet’s head in its place. Arms are fixed on either side of the bottle whose bottom is removed. This enables the puppeteer to control movements by inserting his hand into the bottle. He says it is a better situation these days as he would require only six or seven such improvised puppets.


Earlier, he needed people to transport the heavy puppets from place to place. This requires a lot of money and the two thousand rupees that the government of Tamil Nadu gives for a performance hardly suffices for travel expenses. Chandher does not follow the Tanjore tradition these days as the puppets do not have legs. Borrowing from the Kerala style of puppetry, Chandher’s puppets have flowing gowns which resemble those of Kathakali. The ballooned out gown hides the legs rendering them unnecessary. The puppeteer resorts to providing the illusion of movement.


The puppeteer does not stop with the tales from the Puranas. These days, puppetry has to reach out to the masses by touching on topical issues too. Chandher has even performed the topical issue of terrorism. A lady artist prepares to play the role of a little girl who fell to the bullets of a terrorist. There is the conversation between the terrorist and the ghost of the girl. The terrorist is shocked to hear that he was responsible for taking the life of an innocent child. He is contrite, filled with remorse and decides to lay down arms and starts living a life of peace.


In its long and eventful history, bommalattam has seen its ups and downs. This is the sentiment with which Bharathiraja opens his film. He says bommalattam is speckled with kayangal and njayangal. Kayangal means wounds and scars and njayangal means justice and fairness. This folk form has been a play of the wounds that humanity has suffered. Bommalattam has taken these as its subject and the sense of justice it has instilled through its messages. All these are played out through the nimble finger movements of the magician called the puppeteer.