Traditional shadow theatre from Karnataka in south-west India. Togalu signifies “leather” and gombeyata “figure, doll, dance and performance”. There are two distinct types of togalu gombeyata based on the size of the figures. Chikka theatre uses the smaller figures (between 20 to 30 centimetres high) and dodda theatre uses the larger-sized figures (between 30 to 120 centimetres in height). There are several regional variations within these two types of theatre that have different manipulation techniques, different music and also different morphology of figures that reproduce sculpted or painted ornaments from local temples (dating from at least the last century). For example, the position of the two eyes in a face seen full front, as well as the compositions of humans, animals, birds and trees that can be seen in the mural paintings of the Lepakshi temple (built 14th-17th centuries during the Vijayanagar Kings’ period).

The puppeteers are from the Killikyeta tribal group that came from Maharashtra at least two centuries ago and settled in different regions of Southern India, particularly in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. They still speak Aare (Aré) Marathi, a dialect based on archaic Marathi, which is not understood by the population of the southern states.

During the togalu gombeyata performances, puppeteers speak in Kannada, one of the languages of Karnataka, but include certain songs or exclamations in Aare Marathi. They have the status of travelling entertainer-educators and their repertoire is based on fragments from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, and also from folk tales. The episodes of the Ramayana are the principal source of inspiration in the Kannada language.

Togalu gombeyata performances take place in a reserved space outside the village and also in the courtyard of certain temples. The coloured and transparent shadow figures are seen from behind a rectangular white cotton fabric screen stretched between two poles. The lighting source – in olden days an oil lamp, later a hurricane lamp and nowadays a neon – is placed between the puppeteer and the leather figures. These puppet showmen travel about with their own portable puppet stage that can be disassembled and reset up consisting of twelve bamboo poles, a long rope and a length of white cloth that can be mounted on three or four sides. There are often two puppeteers who set themselves up, to manipulate the shadow figures from inside this box, but without being seen by the audience. The musicians, composed of a singer, a maddalam (horizontal two-skinned drum) player, a tala (cymbal) player, and a harmonium player, sit or stand on the sides. They all wear gejje, metal anklet bells around their legs.

The performance opens with the appearance of Ganapati (Ganesh), the elephant-headed god, sitting under a tree surrounded by his rooster, peacock and parrots, above which are the goddess of knowledge, music arts and science, Sharada (Saraswati) and the clowns Killikyeta and his wife Bagarakka. After invocations to Ganapati and Sharada, the selected episode begins.

The shadow figure is attached and held by a bamboo rod which runs through it vertically. Another much thinner bamboo rod manipulates the only movable member, most often an arm but sometimes the head or the leg. The large figures are animated by puppeteers behind the screen who hold them at arm’s length 1.8 metres high. In the past, figures used to be carved from doe skin but now goat skin is used. Performances are held during religious and secular celebrations in the Mysore, Mandya and Bellary regions and a few other villages of Karnataka.

Certain rituals dedicated to the fabrication of the figures focus on the cutting and perforation of the leather as well as on the colouring process based on vegetable and mineral ingredients, now replaced by chemical preparations. The figures are tinted, not painted.

Nowadays, very few puppeteers still perform togalu gombeyata. Their poverty and especially the lack of interest of local populations are leading puppeteers towards the end of an exceptionally refined theatrical expression.

Today, there are troupes and traditional families performing togalu gombeyata, 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.)