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Art From The South: Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh

Exploring Shadow Puppetry: Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh

As a child, playing with shadows and creating various animal and bird shapes is a universal experience. There is something about shadow art that makes it captivating—perhaps the fact that we are able to see complex beings and objects in simple shapes? Personification is an innate quality of human beings. We create characters and stories from shadow, light, and inanimate objects. The never-ending human fascination with shadows has led to the creation of various forms of shadow art and shadow puppetry. One such folk art is the mesmerising Tholu Bommalata from Andhra Pradesh.

Let’s step into the shadows and explore this ancient art form, from its traditional styles to its contemporary evolution.

Tholu Bommalata: A Time-Honoured Shadow Puppetry Tradition

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Image credit: World Art Community

Tholu Bommalata, also known as “the dance of leather dolls,” is a traditional shadow puppetry art form that originated in Andhra Pradesh, India. Its complex history dates back to the 3rd century BCE.

In this distinctive form of puppetry, translucent leather puppets come to life on a screen and narrate mythological and folk tales from the epics through a blend of music, dance, and vibrant visuals.

How Did Shadow Puppetry Evolve?

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Image credit: Deccan Herald

Tholu Bommalata began under the patronage of the Vijayanagara rulers in the 16th century. It evolved as a hereditary craft and was passed down through generations. The puppeteers were called bommalata vallu and originally lived in present-day Maharashtra.

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Togalu Gombeyaata puppets. Image credit: Dsource

In the 18th century, many such performing troops migrated to the regions of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Tholu Bommalata also shares similarities with art forms from neighbouring regions such as togalu gombeyaata and tolu bommalatam. Although the puppeteers use regional languages like Kannada and Telugu in the performances, they also speak Aare, a Marathi dialect.

The Pallava, Chalukya, and Vijayanagara dynasties played pivotal roles in shaping and preserving this unique shadow puppetry tradition.

Various forms of folk drama and performance art developed in regional languages after Sanskrit drama fell into decline. These folk art forms adapted certain elements from earlier theatre traditions and created new customs of their own as well.

Tholu Bommalata is primarily associated with Shiva, and is performed at festivals and special occasions such as Shivratri. It would traditionally be held at night and last for about four hours or more. ‘Ranganatha Ramayana’ was a version of the Ramayana written in the 16th century by Gona Budda Reddy, specifically for use in shadow puppetry shows.

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh: The Enthralling Performance

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
The performance stage. Image credit: Hans India

Tholu Bommalata is a folk art form that uses music, puppets, and dance as visual and narrative devices. The puppeteer, who often belongs to a family troupe, uses a combination of strings and sticks to manipulate the puppets.

The head of the family is usually the lead puppeteer. Two or three other puppeteers accompany him during the performance.

The shadowed figures are displayed on a white screen, which is a fine white cloth measuring 12×4 feet. The choice of leather and the intricate process of puppet creation reflect the puppeteer’s skill and commitment to preserving this ancient art form.

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
A Wayand kulit performance. Image credit: Wonderful Indonesia.

The puppeteer uses lamps to manipulate the size and position of the puppets by moving them closer or farther away from the light. Tholu Bommalata precedes the Wayang kulit Indonesian puppetry, which also utilises similar lighting techniques.

The performance includes large leather puppets measuring about 1 to 2 metres in height, as well as even larger and smaller ones. One character can have multiple puppets in different sizes and positions.

Traditionally, craftsmen would use three types of animal hide to craft them. They would make puppets from either goat, deer, or buffalo hide, which differs with different puppet characters.

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh: Process of Creation

A puppet on display at the exhibit in the Museu do Oriente (Lisbon, Portugal) Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

First, the craftsman treats the skin and processes it to make it stiff and translucent. Then, they draw the character’s outline and cut it out carefully. It takes one hide to make the average puppet. Larger ones may require up to three.

The different parts of the puppet’s body are cut separately and attached together with string. These are the puppet’s ‘joints’; the puppeteer manipulates these points to make them move. Female character puppets are cinched at the waist and have extra articulation points so the puppeteer can make them dance during the performance.

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Ravana puppet. Photograph by Serena Autiero. Image credit:

Most of the puppets, with the exception of the Ravana one, are created in profile view and painted on both sides. This allows the puppeteer to flip them and move them around during the performance. The ten faces of Ravana are crafted in a profile view around the face in the centre, which is front-facing. Earlier, they were crafted in a sphere.

The Visual Aesthetics of Tholu Bommalata from Andhra Pradesh

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Image credit: SaffronArt

These puppets follow traditional iconographic conventions. The Tholu Bommalata style draws inspiration from the Lepakshi murals at Virabhadra Temple in Andhra Pradesh.

Each character’s appearance, from dress to hairstyle, adheres to traditional conventions. This allows the audience to distinguish between characters and understand their roles in various contexts.

The craftsmen originally used natural paints made from vegetables and minerals to paint these puppets. They were either red, green, or black, with white highlights and details. Nowadays, the availability of synthetic colours has provided Tholu Bommalata artists with a wider palette.

The Melody of Tholu Bommalata from Andhra Pradesh

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tholu Bommalata performances take place behind a large screen, illuminated by a light source. The puppeteers use two sticks to skillfully manipulate the puppets and engage them in elaborate dances and battles.

A variety of instruments, including the muddalam, mridangam, cymbals, harmonium, mukhaveena, and shankha accompany these shadow puppet performances. 

The musical elements of Tholu Bommalata add depth and emotion to the storytelling. It also allows the performers to explore storytelling through a musical medium and provides employment to musicians who play the instruments.

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh: Contemporary State

Tholu Bommalata From Andhra Pradesh
Contemporary puppets by Sindhe Sriramalu wearing masks. Image credit: Dastkaari Haat Samiti via

Nowadays, artists prefer to use goat skin hide to create puppets. Tholu Bommalata has faced a decline since the 1970s, as financial constraints have led many puppeteers to shift to other professions. Only a handful of troupes continue to practice this art form.

Despite receiving a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008, efforts to revitalise the tradition have seen limited success. Efforts to preserve and promote Tholu Bommalata are crucial not only for the cultural identity of the region but also for ensuring that this ancient art form continues to captivate audiences for generations to come.

Interested in learning more about Indian shadow puppetry? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello

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