Traditional shadow theatre from Orissa (Odisha), on the north-east coast of India. In the entire state of Orissa, only one troupe, from the Dhenkanal region, continues to perform ravanachhaya (chhaya is “shadow” in the Oriya language). The name of this type of theatre comes from the demon-king Ravana who fought against Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu); the latter possessed such a powerful aura that he did not cast a shadow. The troupe of eight people is composed of four puppeteers and four musicians who sing in Oriya.

During religious festivals, the puppeteers erect a 5-metre by 3-metre stage in a street or a field. A 5-metre long and 1-metre high cotton screen attached to a straw mat vertically placed on stage hides the puppeteers. The gayak, or main singer, narrates and illustrates the episodes from the Bichitra Ramayana (one of the many regional versions of the epic Ramayana), transcribed into Oriya at the beginning of the 18th century. The interpreters speak while often improvising dialogues between the three hundred to three hundred and fifty characters. The first shadow figure to appear is the barber, called Bhandari. The 20 to 25 centimetre high figures are cut from 3-millimetre thick goat/sheepskin, which is used for most characters, but god figures are made from deerskin and demons from stag skin. They are coloured only in black and white and have neither transparency nor articulation. A bamboo rod runs vertically through the shadow figures. The Ravana figure is much larger than the others.

The puppeteers, who belong to a very low caste, manipulate two figures at a time while seated on the ground.

Today, there are still troupes and traditional families performing ravanachhaya, some of whom are master puppeteers recognized locally and sometimes nationally for their contribution to the art of puppetry.

(See India, Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards for Puppetry.)