Tholu Bommalata: Telugu Shadow Puppet Theatre

in Overview
Published on: 17 September 2018

Serena Autiero

Serena Autiero’s major fields of interest are: South Asian and Indian Ocean art and archaeology. She’s actively involved in the study of Indian heritage. Serena is founder and Vice-President of Vidyā - Arti e Culture dell'Asia, an Italian association dedicated to the study, dissemination and preservation of Asian cultures. She has been Assistant Professor of Art History at the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University of Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Serena received her PhD from the Sapienza University of Rome. She was a member of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Nepal, and of the Italian Archaeological Mission in the Swat Valley (Pakistan). From 2007 to 2014 she was a collaborator to the Educational Sector of the National Museum of Oriental Art 'G. Tucci' in Rome for several projects on the arts and archaeology of Asian countries.




Tholu bommalata (also spelled: tolu bommalata, or tholu bommalattam; Latin spellings of Telugu words can be rendered in several ways, in this text we use a spelling that is as easy as possible for English speakers) literally means the dance (attam, ata) of the leather (tholu) puppets (bommalu). Tholu bommalata is the shadow theatre tradition of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and part of Karnataka. The geographic distribution of tholu bommalata encompasses the Telugu-speaking area, and cannot be exactly defined by state borders. After Telangana was awarded separate statehood on June 2, 2014; the old geographic categorization of tholu bommalata as puppet theatre tradition of Andhra Pradesh needs an update as Telugu shadow theatre, entrusting the definition to the language of the performances. Besides new state formations, boundaries among the different schools faded  since shadow theatre is a performative art widespread in many South Indian states; and moreover South India is often indicated by scholars as the motherland of this art. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Odisha and Kerala; several schools of shadow theatre still survive, with overlapping existence across borders.


Despite some families still actively performing, Indian shadow puppetry is an endangered art. Among the many traditions, Tholu bommalata puppets are definitely the most peculiar for their large sizes. The heights of these puppets range from 120 to 180 centimetres; and at times almost two meters as well. Dimensions can vary according to regional traditions. In different areas of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, there are differences in aspects and techniques of puppetry (Sorensen 1975:2).


Shadow puppetry in South India has a very long history—it was indeed already popular under Satavahana and Chalukya dynasties (4th – 6th centuries AD). It is probably during this period that shadow theatre from South India spread to South East Asia and beyond, and local styles developed in Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and China. Many references in epigraphy and literature report that in the past, puppeteers occupied an important social role, and they were compensated with riches and goods by wealthy patrons. Neelakantha Panditha (a 12th century commentator of the Mahabharata) reports that at that time in South India, shadow plays with leather puppets were popular, while coeval inscription records the donation of a village to the puppeteer Sutradhari Bommalayya (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:15). Historical evidence shows that the Telugu tradition had been enriched by the arrival of new people from Maharashtra who eventually took over the art, so much so that in the last decades puppeteers are reported to be speaking a Marathi dialect.


Making a puppet


Tholu bommalata puppets measure 120 to 180 centimetres in height, in some cases reaching two meters as well. Such large puppets are different from other South Indian traditions because they are articulated in multiple parts. The puppets have joints along the arms, legs, head and neck, the different segments are held together with strings; a central stick supporting the torso allows the puppeteer to firmly hold the puppet while performing. The head is generally supported by a separated stick that allows rapid movements and twists. More sticks support the palms, while the legs are free and often in just one piece (Singh 1999:156). The puppets that represent divinities or demons such as Ravana, may have (according to classical iconography) multiple arms—in case of which the upper arms are attached to two or more lower arms with hands; and only one hand is manoeuvred with a stick, while the other arms and hands make movements with quick twists and strokes of the main limb. All the puppets show the face in profile, except for the ten headed character of the demon Ravana whose central head is frontal. Besides anthropomorphic characters; there are also representations of animals, trees, and landscape features. Some puppets are not articulated and represent complex combinations of landscape and characters such as Sita and Ravana on a chariot, or Hanuman on a tree.


Tholu bommalata shadow puppets are made of leather that undergoes specific treatments in order to look like translucent stiff parchment. Puppeteers—who are also the manufacturers—mostly use the hide of goats, and occasionally buffalo or deer skin. The kind of leather used is not casual, but responds to specific traditions—in fact the precious and expensive deer skin is used to manufacture gods and puppets of heroes, goat skin is used for human characters, while buffalo is associated exclusively with demonic entities as it is considered impure (buffalo is the vehicle of Yama, god of death). Tradition also wants silhouettes to be obtained from 'non-violent' skin, which is the skin of animals not specifically killed for their production, but who died a natural death (Baird 1965:56). With the impoverishment of tholu bommalata in the last few decades and with the lack of patronage, this conventional use of different kinds of animal hide is lost, and goat skin is used indifferently.


The long manufacturing process starts with two days of immersion of the skin in hot water. After the soaking, hair and lower layers of the skin can be easily removed with a sharp knife. The skin is then further purified and scraped with special tools while being stretched to a frame. At the end of this process, it is finally dried out in the open, stretched on a white cloth for three days; following which further treatments with local herbs and beating of the skin make it translucent (Chattopadhyay 1995 (1975):166).


The end result is an extremely thin, light and refined product, devoid of any smell. This product is then processed in the puppet itself. Every puppet is made with two to three skins, with obvious economic implications for the manufacturer; and in the past skin was donated by patrons (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:22). Cutting and decoration of the puppets require great skill and technical preparation. The first step is outlining the silhouette of the character on the skin with a pencil or piece of charcoal (the latter being the old traditional technique). Once the different components of the puppet have been cut out of the skin, the decoration process begins; clothing and jewellery are outlined both in drawing and chiselling. It requires great workmanship to finely decorate the puppets.


Tiny holes of different shapes are carved with different chisels. This decorative technique guarantees a spectacular effect once the shadows are projected on the white screen. The last step in the decoration process is colouring; traditionally the puppets were painted with natural hues, nowadays premixed industrial paints are generally used for the sake of practicality and to speed up the process. Indeed, natural dye preparation could take up to two months of work (Singh 1999:158).


Puppet manufacturing in tholu bommalata is at the crossroads of art and craft, mostly because it follows traditional conventions and rules. The dyeing process as well is not left to the artist’s choice but follows conventions. Certain characters can be identified, due to their complexion; for example, Rama and Krishna are depicted with blue skin, and female characters have predominant yellow or orange tones. However, there are exceptions to these rules, and some artists act out of traditional conventions (Devasahayam 1999:3). In order to be ready for the stage, puppets are assembled with threads and cane, or bamboo sticks are added to allow manoeuvring. Depending on the size of the puppet and the articulation of the limbs, one or more sticks can be used. In tholu bommalata, a central stick is used to hold the puppet, and both arms are manoeuvered with sticks. Moreover, the different limbs are kept together and manoeuvered with a system of wires.


Besides puppet manufacturing, the puppeteers are also in charge of their maintenance—leather objects need oil treatments for correct preservation. The figures are periodically treated by rubbing coconut oil on them with a piece of cloth; usually this maintenance routine is done before summer (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:27). Puppets are a treasure to the puppeteers and they are handed down from father to son. Crossing generations, they are sometimes damaged and need repair and restoration. Limbs can be replaced, broken parts stitched in places, and patches can be obtained by reused or discarded fragments. It is thanks to these restoration techniques that the life of these puppets is prolonged over the years.


A play is presented with several puppets—'a play of about four hours can be presented with about 60 figures' (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:30). The assemblage of puppets takes the name of the ganiyam, that is the bamboo box which contains the figures belonging to a family.


Animal leather and its manufacturers are considered impure in India as are the low caste puppeteers handling it. , so it is peculiar that sacred Indian epic can be performed in such a medium as leather puppets. Moreover tholu bommalata performances were historically held in the sacred precincts of temples, on sacred occasions such as religious festivals. Shadow puppets are much more than pieces of leather moving in front of a light source; they constitute a momentary divine epiphany on earth. The process through which such impure material is allowed to represent divine stories is ritualistic in nature starting from manufacturing and ending only with the 'death' of the puppet.


Before they start to make a puppet, puppeteers pray to the gods, and break a coconut. In tholu bommalata, the facial features are the last parts to be carved—the puppet is given a face right before the debut on the scene, since it is the face that gives life to the character (Sorensen 1975:3). Before the debut, the puppets undergo rituals to celebrate their birth with offers of flowers and incense; similarly, after years of use, puppets retire from performing with a ritual similar to a funeral—old puppets are immersed in the waters of a river, as the cremated bodies are left to the waters of the Ganges (Singh 1999:157).


The ritualistic dimensions of tholu bommalata puppets are also evident in the decorative conventions. Often the puppets are adorned in repeated tilak symbols on various body parts. The most prevalent tilak is a U-shaped symbol with a small ovoid at the base, representing the sacred imprint of the god Vishnu. The oval at the base represents the tulsi leaf, the holy basil. For a Vaishnava devotee, marking their body with the tilak indicates consecration to the God. Through the sign—ritually applied at twelve points on the head, trunk and arms—the devotee's body is equalized to the temple as a divine dwelling. Likewise, the depiction of one or more tilak on the puppets is part of their consecration process and guarantees the presence of divinity. Attending a shadow theatre performance also has a protective power for the community, since the tilak protects both the body on which it is traced and whoever looks at it.


The puppeteers


Tholu bommalata puppets are decorated pieces of leather, but behind the white screen they come to life with the action of the puppeteer. The puppet is a medium that represents the human urge to recreate life, and the puppeteers act as god in the small universe of the stage (Sarma and Singh 2010:40). Tholu bommalata shows are choral actions and require a group effort; such groups—the troupes—are family based, the profession is passed on from father to son on a patriarchal line. The head of the family is also the head of the troupe and his title is bhagavatar or sutradhar. The latter is the most common title for directors in Indian performing arts, but in tholu bommalata the title of bhagavatar appears to be more widespread (GoldbergBelle 1984:25). Members of the troupe are part of the extended family of the bhagavatar, both male and female. According to the family composition, numbers can vary; in some instances it is reported that a puppeteer could take more than one wife in order to facilitate the performance (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:20). The number of puppeteers in a troupe can vary from five to ten people. Usually there are three to four main performers, including the bhagavatar.


Due to the large size of the puppets, they can only be manipulated one at a time, and usually on the scene there are two or three puppets per scene (GoldbergBelle 1984:26). Each puppeteer is not only well-versed in the manipulation techniques, but also in singing, playing some instrument, and recitation. As said before, puppeteers are also engaged in puppet-making. During the performance, the puppeteer not only moves the puppet but also reads its lines. Dancing puppets take their movements from the puppeteer who behind the screen actually dances in a style close to kuchipudi, the classical dance style of Andhra Pradesh, mirrored in the dancing shadow.


Younger family members help in handling the puppets and in other backstage duties, and this is how their training starts when they are just toddlers (GoldbergBelle 1984:28; Sorensen 1975:11). Mainly training is attained through experience, while more organic training sessions are needed for the memorization of the epic texts in Telugu. This is particularly crucial for those troupes reported to speak a Marathi dialect. Many scholars confirm that several families involved in tholu bommalata have a Marathi origin, many of them still speak a Marathi dialect called Aare or remember their predecessors doing so. This circumstance is a point in common with the Kannada tradition of shadow theatre that can actually be considered a cognate tradition. According to historical sources, in the 17th century, groups of performers from Maharashtra moved to the southern regions of the Indian subcontinent (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:17). Whilst preserving the Aare dialect for homely environments, these puppeteers chose to perform in Telugu, embracing the centuries old puppetry tradition they found in the Andhra region.


Condition of the troupes started to deteriorate from the 1950s onwards, and they faced financial troubles. Already in the 1980s, scholars reported that troupes had to assume side jobs in order to make a living, since puppetry alone was not enough to sustain the family (see for examples Nagabushana Sarma 1985; Golberg Belle 1984; Sorensen 1975). This problem is still felt— as recently as 2016, the Deccan Chronicle dedicated a paper to the topic mentioning troupes in Andhra Pradesh engaged in agricultural work. In the past tholu bommalata shows were financed through a system of patronage; some troupes were linked to temples, while others were sustained by wealthy villagers.


The performance


Tholu bommalata puppets come to life by the skilful movements of the puppeteer. By way of a complex system of sticks and strings, the puppeteer can move the shadow puppets with a harmony close to dance. Puppets cast a coloured shadow on the screen, and behind the screen, the evanescent shadow of the animators dressed in white remains visible (Clark 2005:336). The performance implies a holistic effort for the puppeteer. Even the production of sounds is the puppeteer’s responsibility; since it is largely based on tinkling the strings of bells they wear as anklets (similar to the ghungroo anklets of Indian classical dance styles) and rhythmically step on the wooden boards that constitute the base platform (Sorensen 1975:9).


The tholu bommalata shows traditionally take place during the nine nights of Shivratri outside the temples dedicated to Shiva, the patron of this art (Singh 1999:156). Nowadays, performances are disconnected from the ritualistic contexts. The duration of the shows has been adapted to modernity, and a complete show lasts around two hours. Many companies have adapted their repertoire to the timing of theatre festivals with shorter performances that anyway perfectly exemplify their art.


The performance is divided into different segments: introduction, main story, and comedy skits. On this basic formula, different troupes build their show.


The actual performance requires some ritualistic preliminary actions, before the puppets appear. The evanescent shadows of the troupe are visible, and the bhagavatar performs puja: a coconut is broken on the stage and some prayers recited—sometimes, auspicious signs are outlined on the white screen. This ritual allows the God to enter the stage, and the first character appears: Lord Ganesha, the god with the elephant head.


Similar to every traditional Indian performing art, the show starts with an invocation to Ganesha, which aims at removing the obstacles and allows a good performance. Traditionally, before the invocation to Ganesha, all the puppets participating in the performance are placed on the two sides of the screen so that they can benefit from the God’s blessings. Ganesha performs a dance on the rhythm of a daruvu, folk designation of the accompanying song (Nagabushana Sarma 198:36).


The next puppet to appear is another divine figure: Saraswathi, the Goddess of learning and wisdom. She is made to dance, and in recent years she is sometimes replaced by a dancer puppet. During the dance performance, the puppeteer dances behind the screen, infusing their movements to the shadow puppet. After the invocation to Saraswathi, a recitation in praise of the audience is recited by the jester characters: Bangarakka, Jettupoligatu and Ketigadu (see allied article).


These comic skits constitute the connection among puppeteers, puppets and the audience, since the clowns are allowed to communicate with all the people involved. The puppeteers use the clown puppets to express gratitude to the patrons, but also to harshly criticize stingy sponsors, and to condemn those who have not contributed to the realization of the show. Jesters fall in a grey zone between human and puppet, and their interjections in the performance are the most lively and obtain enthusiastic reactions from the audience they actively involve in the event.


The core of the performance is represented by epic stories. The repertoire of tholu bommalata performances is mostly based on the Ramayana and to a lesser extent on the Mahabarata, and some Vaishnava texts such as the Bhagavata Purana. The text of a Ramayana story can be drawn from different sources—both written and oral, but the main source is a Telugu version compiled by Ranganatha in the 16th century for the shadow theatre (Sarma and Singh 2010:39). The main text used for Mahabharata stories is Vemulapati Bharatham (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:37). During the performance, several characters appear on the screen. Usually when a main character enters the scene, it is introduced by a song and it dances before the actual dialogues begin.


In order to make the performance easily understandable by the audience, the different characters follow different entry conventions: the divinities enter the screen from the right side of the audience, while the other characters from the left; demons, on the other hand, fall from the top or make sudden entrances accompanied by special effects such as flames and explosions (Sarma and Singh 2010:39).


In earlier times, a show lasted many hours and it was performed at night so that the coloured shadows of the puppets could be visible on the white screen mounted outdoor: shadow puppet shows must be performed in the dark. These long and tiring performances were interwoven with comedy skits, often obscene in content, in which grotesque characters of jesters entertain the audience with silly and irreverent dialogues. These skits are not related to epic texts performed. The more or less explicit representation of sexual attributes and marked obscenity of the dialogues depend solely on the tradition of the family. These jesters entertain the audience with their dialogues, and sometimes also make incursions in the epic narrative. The obscene aspect of the jesters has been lost since the 1970s; and nowadays they appear as grotesque humanoids.


As already stated, music plays a crucial role in tholu bommalata performances—the scenic sounds are obtained through the use of wood planks and anklets of bells. The performances are accompanied by live music and songs. The troupe performs both solo songs and chorus pieces. The musicians are usually behind the screen, behind the puppeteers. The musical instruments used are: tablas, mridangam, muddala (percussions), harmonium, cymbals, shanka (conch) and mukhaveena (wind instrument).


Different troupes can have different combination of instruments, usually played by junior puppeteers before they are ready to manipulate the puppets (GolbergBelle 1984:21-22). The musicians are part of the family troupe, and during the performance they sit behind the puppeteers. Music in tholu bommalata helps in rendering the dramatization of the scenes. Entrances, dialogues, fights: every part of the performance is enlivened by appropriate music and songs; and the type of music is a mix of classical and folk traditions (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:41).


Despite inevitable adaptation to the timing of contemporary theatre, tholu bommalata keeps its conventions, and every show reflects the pattern outlined here.


The stage


The main peculiarity of the shadow theatre stage is its shape; it is closed behind a white screen of fabric; and the puppets appear behind this white curtain. The audience sees their coloured shadows, not the actual puppets. Tholu bommalata is a bi-dimensional show where all the puppeteers’ actions happen behind the white fabric. The screen must be very tight, and in order to obtain this result it is firmly tied to a frame of poles.


The screen is raised on a platform and its lower part is covered in a black cloth in order to allow the puppeteers to operate while standing. The puppets are secured to the screen and sometimes it is slightly bent towards to the audience to better accommodate larger puppets and for ease of puppeteers’ work (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:31). The screen size is consistent with the size of the puppets, reaching the impressive size of eight by two and a half metres; though nowadays smaller screens of three/four meters by two are more common.


Traditionally, the screen received illumination from a row of castor oil earthenware lamps, but in the last decades this system has been replaced by electric lighting. The old style of illumination had a more uniform and natural way of spreading rays. While with electric bulbs, concentric distribution of light is a problem; the change of the illumination system also caused some changes in the puppets’ manufacturing—nowadays the puppets are painted with lighter colours so that brighter lights do not vitiate the show (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:33).


Tholu bommalata is performed outdoors and the stage is a temporary structure traditionally realized by the contribution of the hosting village. The building material in the past was supplied by the wealthy villagers, who also concurred in assembling and disassembling the structure. The large screen is made of white fabric. Traditionally it was the village dhobi (launderer) who provided two white saris (female garment varying from 4 to 8 metres in length and 60 to 120 centimetres in height) or dhotis (male loincloth measuring around 5 metres by 90 centimetres) for the purpose; and the lamps were provided by the barber (Sorensen 1975:8). In the old days, the area enclosed behind the screen was a temporary hut where the crew resided for the duration of the long performance split over one week or more.


The erection of the stage started with prayers to Rama and Hanuman, but no specific rituals have been reported (Nagabushana Sarma 1985:36).


Patrons and audience


All the components illustrated so far concur in enacting the magic of shadow theatre; to make it complete, however, the work of the troupe is not sufficient, and the intervention of external people is needed. This happens mainly in two ways: patronage and attendance.


In the past tholu bommalata shows were offered to the villagers for free, the money needed to sustain the troupe and to set up the show was supplied through patronage. Some troupes are reported to have been supported by local temples, while others were financed by villages or wealthy people. In the opening part of the show, patrons were mentioned and sometimes criticized if not generous enough. Patrons and donors were not important only in order to enact the show, but it has also been reported that wealthy individuals donated animal hides to the troupes, to make puppets (Sorensen 1975:12).


Being involved in the organization of a tholu bommalata show is considered to be auspicious, and it is due to this tradition that in the past this art found support (Sorensen 1975:12). Nowadays, tholu bommalata performances are events of one to two hours duration, and are often part of festivals. Nevertheless, the natural habitat of these performances is in the rural areas of India, where they have been for centuries central to the entertainment and education of the masses.


In the second half of the twentieth century, the widespread diffusion of Indian movies has caused a sharp decline in many forms of folk performance art. Sorensen reports a description of a tholu bommalata show in a village—from its description much information can be gained about the behaviour of the public during the long performance. The audience was varied in gender and age, and children also participated in the event. The comic skits caused the most enthusiastic reactions, while the long epic sequences could cause people to take rest on the ground (Sorensen 1975:15-6). While women and children sit in front of the screen on their own mats; men either stand close to the chai (tea) stall, or at the side of the stage watching the movement of the puppeteers.


Conclusion: An endangered art


Tholu bommalata includes many different arts: painting, engraving, music, dance, acting, and storytelling. For centuries, shadow theatre has represented the traditional Indian value system, using codified movements and symbols. Puppet theatre is the natural evolution of the activity of storytellers and travelling bards (Bangari 2011:5). This dual nature of this entertainment and educational tool has made tholu bommalata an important means of communication. Puppets have been used in India by the government for the development of educational programs on health and hygiene, especially because it can reach a vast audience. Its involvement in the contemporary world has also caused some modification in the traditional shows.


Despite the activity of some puppeteer families, shadow theatre in India is an endangered traditional art. To prevent extinction of the refined techniques in some Indian villages; puppeteers try to keep the tradition alive by adapting their skills to the production of everyday objects such as lamps and home decorations. Furthermore, the last decades have seen the development of the production of puppets as tourist craft. In this context, initiatives aimed at the preservation of tholu bommalata are particularly important in order to save a living tradition in great difficulty.


In the second half of the twentieth century, tholu bommalata received sporadic attention from scholars, and the main concern has always been the disheartening condition of puppet shows and puppeteers. The latter are compelled to take on other jobs in order to sustain their families, and puppetry is more and more a side activity disregarded by new generations. It is really a pity to reduce tholu bommalata to a topic of ethnographic interest.


GolbergBelle (1984:23) reports that some troupes received support from the Andhra Pradesh State Handicrafts Board for the production of commercial puppets. Some other performances have been sponsored by the government and included advertisements for programs on family planning or hygiene issues. In the preceding decade, the Central Leather Research Institute in Madras is reported to have founded a troupe of puppeteers with the aim of keeping the art alive adding to traditional plays modern topics such as Gandhi’s life or educational plays on family planning (Sorensen 1975:16). Tholu bommalata cannot be forgotten; actions are required in order to preserve this ancient tradition. Several puppets and craft festivals in India and abroad concur in this work of preservation. Nevertheless, more organic interventions from the government and international agencies are necessary to revamp this endangered art form.




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