Ramayana in Shadow Theater  
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
e-mail: padmajayaraj@sancharnet.in 

February 9, 2005 

Puppetry is an ancient art form that developed when itinerant groups carried theatre on their back. Leather puppetry of India is one of the most ancient folkloric treasures, as old as civilization itself. And shadow-puppetry was the first audio-visual aid when schooling centred on temples in early societies. The art has existed since 200 B C in Maharashtra. Under royal patronage it was rejuvenated in 16th century and spread all over southern and central India and even travelled Far East to Indonesia, changing in form and décor to suit the environment. With the coming of modernity, like many of our traditional art forms, this declined. Now, it survives because of the conscious attempts to revive and sustain our ancient traditions by lovers of arts. In 1964, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi started a project for the enlistment of puppet theatre. Since then it has travelled abroad, discovered fellow groups from other parts of the world, and adapted new themes to suit modern tastes and requirements.  

Shadow puppetry of Kerala is closely linked to the religious life of its people, patronised by temples. The text is Kamba Ramayana. So the verses sung are in Tamil while the interpretations are done in a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. 

Kerala Kalamandalam recently showcased many traditional art forms during its annual weeklong festival in connection with the announcement of State awards for artistes. The 21-day program was edited to a two-hour show to suit the venue and time constraint. Ramachandra Pulavar and his troupe, the leading group in Kerala, presented the show. 

The lights that cast shadows

The stage is special too. A rectangular stage with a long white cloth is the screen. 21 lights give the needed illumination to cast shadows. The black curtain below the white part hides the puppeteers. The puppets are highly stylised, perforated cutouts. The luminous screen becomes a magic world as the shadows move up and down and side-to side, gesticulating with their one mobile arm. 

When dusk enveloped, the performance started with an invocation by the artistes with their percussion instruments, in front of the curtain. And the resonance created a temple atmosphere. The stunning shadows on the screen created a fantastic illusion. The audience greeted them with jubilance. A child-like elegance hovered, as they started moving to make an invocation to Lord Ganesha. The singers paid tributes to the great teachers who kept the art form alive. 
The key scenes of the Ramayana are strung together to render the entire story. The first scene is life in Panchavati and the abduction of Seetha. Rama and Seetha in Panchavati has a lyrical quality. Lakshmana is trying to build a hermitage for them to live there. An idyllic scene with the shadow of a tree, a bird perched upon it, a deer and a squirrel moving reminds one of the seminal tree in a sylvan setting where life ebbs and flows in peace. But Soorpanaka, the sister of Ravana sees the handsome Rama and falls for him. The consequent disfigurement of her feminine charm sows the seeds of war, even though it is pre-ordained. The angry Ravana asks the help of his uncle Mareecha to take the form of a golden deer to lure Seetha away. Ravana's arrogance and the fear that the poor man has for his ruthless nephew is brought out with satire. The golden deer weaning Sri Rama away is a beautiful scene. Scenes flow in an unending line. And then comes Ravana like a mendicant. His abduction of Seetha, and his fight with the bird Jatayu on his way back home takes the story forward. Soon it is the Ashoka Vanam with the forlorn Seetha surrounded by Rakshasis, both good and bad. 

The announcement tells that the scene has shifted and the new characters are the brothers Vaali and Sugreeva. The eternal nature of quarrels and fights between brothers is the undercurrent here. In the folk Ramayana of India, the mythic past, the historic present, inherited stories, political satire and social commentary merge and melt. The Ramayana as a text is resonant with the themes of compassion, honor, and human vulnerability.  The battle scenes are vigorous as different modes of fight goes on. Finally hidden behind a tree, Rama sends a fatal arrow that kills Vaali. In the final scene, the fight between Rama and Ravana is singularly done. Arrows fly against the martial beats of the Chenda, the sound of gong and the rhythm of ankle bells. The rhyming verse with the percussion instruments in the background set the quick pace of the story.  When the mission is over, Sri Rama returns with Seetha and his brother Lakshmana to Ayodhya, and the people of his land welcome them in joy. 

Although it has underwritten dynastic symbolism, the story of Ramayana has preserved a culture with classical basis for theatre, dance, ethical values and elements of folk traditions down India's memory lane. The text is replete with social satire, and rustic humor. And the highly stylized rendering with a folk touch has an unusual freshness. The present trend to keep alive our traditional art forms shows that the future of puppetry is bright. Art lovers are commissioning the team to come up with new themes for social functions for publicity awareness and for school programs. And its future lies amidst children who simply sit glued to the screen. 

Padma Jayaraj is a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com