Tholu Bommalata is the shadow theatre tradition of the Telugu-speaking area of India: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and bordering areas. The main plots of the plays are from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but the epic stories are enriched by intermissions of comic nature. The comedy skits play several roles in the narrative of tholu bommalata, and it is difficult to give an unambiguous explanation to this important part of the shows. These scenes feature a grotesque married couple Ketigadu (also known as Kilikayata) and his wife Bangarakka. They first appear during the performance right after the solemn opening, and entertain the audience with their adventures, dances and witty comments. Besides this comic couple, in the past there were more comic characters that have now disappeared. Jester puppets also had visible sexual attributes, and disappeared from the scene since the late 1970s or the early 1980s (Foley and Pudumjee 2013).
Generally speaking, the jesters survive in Tholu Bommalata till date, but there has been an evolution in their appearance, functions and in the content of their skits.
Jesters are found in nearly every theatre tradition of India. The main example is the Vidūṣaka of classical Sanskrit drama, where this fool helps and highlights the virtues of the hero (GoldbergBelle 1984:139). In tholu bommalata, the comic characters have an autonomous life on the stage; they only remotely interact with the main plot, and represent a completely different set of values if compared to the epic heroes.
Cast of characters
The main comic plots in tholu bommalata are focused on the couple Ketigadu and Bangarakka. The two characters often quarrel or end up performing songs and dances; and in recent years even perform to hits from major Indian blockbuster movies.
Ketigadu is a short puppet with a very dark complexion, his aspects and his movements resembling that of a monkey; and usually he has a hair tuft on top of the head that bears religious symbols on the body, mocking the Brahmins and revealing a contradicting nature. His wife Bangarakka also has a repulsive aspect, usually wearing a huge nose ring and revealing clothes. Nowadays, the shows have been shortened to match modern rhythms; comedy skits are shorter as opposed to how in the past they were longer and more articulated, featuring more characters.
Bangarakka is the only female participating in the comic skits, and her role is that of the gossip friendly wife of the male jester. Her scandalous behaviour is often the fuel to the action. Over the years her character evolved in different ways: her family relations changed (the identity of her husband has changed), but mostly her appearance underwent a real transformation. Bangarakka is now depicted as ugly and deformed, but it had not always been like that. In the past this puppet had a delicate aspect—from descriptions we can infer that she was played by a dancing puppet of the most beautiful type (GoldbergBelle 1984:142). GoldbergBelle (1984) left an accurate description of the clown puppets including Bangarakka; and what emerges of the female jester is her dual nature. Bangarakka, even if delicate and pretty in appearance hid a much wilder nature, and often her impetuous sexuality is in striking contrast to the archetypal idea of female virtue incarnated by Sita, the female protagonist of the Ramayana.
We can infer that in the early 1980s, the metamorphosis of Bangarakka into the ugly puppet we know today was ongoing, since such examples have been reported (GoldbergBelle 1984:142). In the cognate tradition of shadow theatre from Karnataka—togalu gombe atta—Bangarakka has always been performed by an ugly puppet, and this type of representation with time became prevalent even in Telugu shadow theatre. The feature in common between ugly and pretty Bangarakka is her contradictory nature—in any case she aspires to be a nice woman like the ideal Sita, but she miserably fails.
Bangarakka shares the stage with one or two male jesters; her husband is Ketigadu. Nevertheless Ketigadu has not always played the role of Bangarakka’s husband—indeed in the past this role was covered by the other clown Juttupoligadu (the hairy Poligadu). Comedy skits rely on an oral tradition, thus it is not surprising to acknowledge this kind of confusion in the names of the characters. In some cases, especially when only one male character is in the show, he is named Killekyatha as in Togalu Gombe Atta (Sorensen 1975:11).
In Kannada shadow puppetry, this is also the name of the puppeteers group that according to the tradition moved from Maharashtra to the south, starting puppetry in South India (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):168); Killekayata (or strictly related spellings) is also a puppeteers’ caste name (Stache-Rosen 1976:282). In Karnataka, the puppeteers put a tuft of their hair on the clown puppet. Every generation of puppeteers does the same, so that Killekyatha bears the hair of many generations of puppeteers, creating a long lasting bond with their creators (Singh 1999:158). Even if this tradition is not directly documented in tholu bommalata, it is very likely that this also happened in the Telugu-speaking area. This states the special bond between the puppeteer and the clown puppet whose name is both linked to traditional origins of this art, and to the puppeteers’ caste.
The comedy skits concern the familiar life, and often end up with the puppets arguing and then dancing. In the past the plots were quite sexualized and interactions among the puppets were often sexual in nature. Bangarakka was depicted as an infidel, and her husband as a fool who did not understand what was going on. Juttupoligadu—as Bangarakka’s husband—was often raped by Ketigadu—his nephew and Bangarakka’s lover. Rape was used to ignite the action; when present, other clown puppets such as Allatappayya and Gandholigadu were also raped by the main male characters to set the plot in action (GoldbergBelle 1984: 163). These secondary clowns also participate in the epic plot as helpers or minor characters (GoldbergBelle 1984: 166). After the 1980s, these behaviours disappeared from tholu bommalata, mostly as a direct consequence of the government actions towards an educational use of puppetry.
Functions and symbolism
Identification and classification of clown puppets is an impossible task and it is beyond the aim of this article, since they present as many variations as the existing troupes. But it is clear that these puppets have a special role for the puppeteers and that they cover an important role in the show. On a more superficial level, the comic skits in tholu bommalata simply provide entertainment and some enjoyment as a break from the epic passages in the heroic style. Many scholars have pointed out that the jesters enter the scene when the audience is at the verge of falling asleep during the long performances. It is crucial to note that even if the shows don’t last more than a couple of hours these days, the comic skits have not been dismissed, but still constitute a fundamental part of the performance. This is a clear indication that comedy in tholu bommalata is much more than a wake-up call for the audience.
The texts recited by jesters are either verbal improvisations or what we can define as 'codified improvisation'. As in Italian Commedia dell’Arte, the puppeteers follow a canovaccio (plot outline) adapting it to the audience and to the context. Comic characters have a very important role in the opening part of the play—they address the patrons, acknowledge who helped the troupe financially and condemn those who did not. In a codified style, this passage is adapted to the context with every performance; they also welcome the gathered audience, and provide witty comments on the host village and contemporary issues. Jester puppets can therefore address the audience directly and they can talk to the puppeteers. Comic characters have the power to remove the veil between different dimensions, a power that epic characters do not detain, since they only live in the heroic narration. The liminality of comic characters is their most peculiar characteristic; they can cross dimensions and give voice and ears to what is behind the screen, while being presented as part of the troupe itself.
As already said, the family bond with Ketigadu passes through rituals such as the hair tuft transmission, or it is simply stated on stage when he is introduced as a member of the troupe. The jesters not only cross the borders between audience, stage and the backstage, they also cross chronological borders; and are deeply immersed in contemporary life since they provide comments on the village, on the audience and on the patrons. They can also interact with the mythical time of the heroic narrations, thus can travel across time. This sort of anachronism is also observed for other comic characters of Indian theatre traditions, and it is tolerated and encouraged by the audience (Vadardpande 1987:11), probably because it allows the re-enactment of the myth and a perception of the presence of the sacred—represented by the epic puppets—in daily life.
The first literary evidence of the existence of the Vidūṣaka is found in the Natyashastra and then in the plays of Bhasa and Ashvagosha (Varadpande 1992:10). The Vidūṣaka appears in folk traditions in various forms and under different names; the comic characters of tholu bommalata represent the same type as the Vidūṣaka. The Vidūṣaka is a simpleton, whose stupidity provides entertainment.
The comic characters in every performing tradition are very dear to the village audience since they have contact with contemporary life, a simple but deep insight on the world, and a tremendous capacity to change and adapt to the contexts. These capacities allow the jesters to remain eternally fresh, to adapt to changing sensibilities, and to acquire newer traits when needed (Varadpande 1992:11). Behind his imbecility, the jester/Vidūṣaka hides an everyday intelligence and the will to face the problems of day-to-day life.
Comic characters are important in several performing traditions of India; those of tholu bommalata have functions in common with the Vidūṣaka and with all the clowns of Indian folk theatre. Humour plays a major role in Indian entertainment, and part of the entertainment is provided by the grotesque aspect of the jester/clown. Bharata in his Natyashastra describes the Vidūṣaka as a hunch-back dwarf, having an ugly disfigured face, protruding teeth and is bald and yellow-eyed (Natyashastra 35.57).
As in tholu bommalata, if on the one side the grotesque appearance of the Vidūṣaka is meant to compliment and enhance the positive physical qualities of the epic hero, on the other side this characteristic is linked to several symbolic functions (Goldberg Belle 1985:176). In an unpublished paper presented at the 1979 conference on Asian Puppet Theatre in London (as reported in Goldberg Belle 1985:173 ff.), Bruce Tapper has suggested that the jesters in tholu bommalata act as diṣṭi bommalu (evil eye dummies, scarecrows) used to protect new buildings and crops from the evil eye. These dummies are still commonly visible in construction sites all around India. It is believed that with their grotesque appearance they have the power to draw away the evil eye and protect the site and the workers. During the performances, grotesque puppets not only protect the performance with their ugly appearance, but they also present unfortunate events in their life; their enacting of inauspicious events works in the same manner as telling an actor to break a leg before a performance (GoldbergBelle 1985:174). In India—especially in a rural context—'ugliness' has the commonly acknowledged power of diverting the evil eye and bad luck; exemplary is the habit of painting fake moles on the face of infants and toddlers in order to make them ugly and protect them.
Besides their disgusting appearance, jesters in tholu bommalata also have an absurd behaviour—they can do and say socially unacceptable things (such as rape); their contradictory agency may justify a further function: it is indeed reported in the 1961 Census of India that tholu bommalata was staged in the hope of bringing rains, as well as during weddings to bring fertility (Goldberg Belle 1985:178). Their inversion of everyday standards shakes cosmic energy causing modifications to the status quo. This also implies that both the puppeteers and the audience were aware of the absurdity of their behaviour and that even decades ago there was not any form of positive attitude towards their unacceptable actions.
The transformative role of jesters in tholu bommalata is expressed at different levels; on the one hand they cross chronological boundaries between myth and life, as well as conceptual boundaries which separate puppets, puppeteers and the audience; on the other hand they express internal contradictions and transformations. In any case their behaviour and actions determine the overall performance and stimulate a change both at a practical level (e.g. puppets show to the villagers how to speak directly and with no filters to the elites) and at a symbolic one (e.g. enhance fertility).
Sex and eroticism
Another key feature of clown puppets in tholu bommalata was eroticism. This characteristic has been dismissed in the last decades. Reports dating from the 60s up to the 80s describe the male jesters as provided with a huge penis which can be made erect by means of a string; the skits were often crude and imbued with an exuberant eroticism. The plots revolved around the illicit sexual conduct of Bangarakka, and Jettupoligadu and Ketigadu were often involved in sexual intercourses and even rape.
These scandalous plots declined from the 70s, when puppetry started to be performed in a different context. From rural festivals, tholu bommalata became in those years a product for the urban elite and started to be supported by government sponsored art groups (GoldbergBelle 1985:181). Puppetry has long been used as an educational medium. In rural areas during the 70s folk theatre; including puppetry was used as a tool for awareness campaigns about health care, hygiene, birth control (Epskamp 2006:55). Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's clampdown on civil liberties from 1975 to 1977 included a massive birth control campaign that culminated in a wave of forced sterilizations especially in rural areas. In this political and social environment too, shadow puppets had been de-sexualized. Nowadays, the clown puppets don’t show sexual attributes; only Bangarakka’s breast is sometimes visible but as an attribute to her ugly appearance, more than in its sexual connotation.
Despite the many different levels of analysis, clown puppets are a key element in tholu bommalata and the most stable feature of the performance. They are found in every show regardless of the epic content (GoldbergBelle 1985:182). Clown puppets provide different elements to the show such as:
- Entertainment through superficial and direct humour
- Engagement of the audience
- Symbolic functions such as protection of the show
- Ritual roles propitiating rain and fertile weddings
The last two functions have recently lost importance with the gradual estrangement from the rural context and inclusion in an urban theatrical and educational context. With a dramatic loss of patronage tholu bommalata is nowadays mostly kept alive in theatre and puppetry festivals; in this completely renovated habitat the clown puppets too have undergone a twisting change.
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