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Tollu Bommalu: Weaving Tales in Leather Shadows

Tollu Bommalu, the ancient art of crafting leather puppets, brings to life the cultural vibrancy of Andhra Pradesh. Rooted in tradition, religious ethos and local entertainment, this unique form of shadow puppetry has a rich history that dates back to 200 BC. Let's dive into the enchanting world where leather lampshades and puppets tell stories of epics, folklores, and timeless craftsmanship.

Derived from the Telugu words "thollu", meaning leather and "bommalu", meaning dolls, Thollu Bommalu has been an integral part of Andhra Pradesh's cultural heritage. Its roots go back to the Satvahana dynasty, finding patronage among rulers who appreciated the art form. The 16th-century Telugu manuscript 'Ramayana Ranganathana' is a testament to the enduring connection between puppetry and regional history.

Nimmalakunta, D.C. Palle, and Narsaraopet districts in Andhra Pradesh are hubs for leather puppet making. Interestingly the Marathi Balija community, originally from Marathwada, is the driving force behind this hereditary craft from Andhra Pradesh.

In its heyday, Tollu Bommalu graced performances narrating episodes from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Puppeteers, often in troupes of six to ten, brought stories alive behind a screen, manipulating puppets to convey themes with synchronised sounds and music. While performances have dwindled, these brilliantly crafted puppets remain as cultural artefacts.

Goat hides and sheep skins form the base material, sourced from local meat markets in Dharmavaram, Ananthapur, and Hyderabad. Smoothed leather serves as the canvas for puppet designs inspired by traditional Puranic figures. Different coloured hides signify different characters, with meticulous colouring, drying, and mounting on sticks bringing these puppets to life. The entire process takes thirty to forty days depending on intricacy and size.

Once a flourishing business, the decline in shadow theatre, due to the onset of cinema and television has compelled artisans to diversify. This is where Andhra Pradesh government interventions and design ideas & inputs from NIFD have led to the creation of utility items like lampshades to cater to evolving markets.

The adaptation of leather puppets into lampshades caters to modern tastes while retaining the essence of traditional designs. Lampshades are crafted using metal frames on which the processed leather is stretched and stitched using leather thread.

The production process involves meticulous steps, from cleaning and soaking the hide to drawing designs and colouring with water-proof dyes. Once the raw material is acquired, it undergoes a meticulous process. Initially, it is subjected to thorough cleaning in hot water. Subsequently, it is immersed in a pit of limewater for approximately 10 days, effectively softening the upper surface. This softened surface is then diligently cleaned and smoothed with a chisel to achieve a flawless texture. Following this initial cleaning, the leather undergoes another soaking, with kadaka powder, introducing a subtle light brown hue. The leather is then meticulously dried for up to a week, depending on prevailing weather conditions. Once dried, the leather is prepared for the intricate designs to be drawn on its surface.

Design motifs draw inspiration from traditional and religious sources, featuring epics, Hindu deities, Panchatantra characters, Animals & birds along with flora, and fauna.

These themes are drawing using pencil & then outlining with black paint using handmade Bamboo nib. This black paint is generally a mix of natural lamp black, a synthetic colour & locally procured tree gum. Vibrant vegetable dyes along with a mix of synthetic colours fill the intricate patterns.

Chiselling small holes, a technique inherited from the original leather puppet craft enhances the aesthetic appeal and adds a critical design element to improve the lamp lighting & reflection.

Now this craft is enhanced not just in the form of leather lamps, but, many more artefacts & artful utilities crafted like fairy lights, wall clocks, wall-mounted puppets, jewellery and many more.

Preserving Tollu Bommalu art is not just about safeguarding a cultural heritage rich in mythology and tradition; it's a commitment to sustaining the livelihoods of artisans who've inherited this craft through generations. The intricate leather puppets and lampshades serve as repositories of cultural narratives, reflecting Andhra Pradesh's ethos. Upholding artisan livelihoods is crucial as the shift from traditional puppetry to creating utility items like lampshades demonstrates their adaptability. Diversification, adapting Tollu Bommalu to contemporary tastes, is essential for economic viability and market relevance. By supporting the Marathi Balija community linked to this craft, we contribute to preserving an art form and the well-being of these communities. In essence, preserving Tollu Bommalu encompasses safeguarding cultural roots, supporting artisans, fostering innovation, and ensuring the continuation of a tradition integral to Andhra Pradesh's identity. Embracing both preservation and diversification secures the legacy of Tollu Bommalu for future generations.

In conclusion, Tollu Bommalu, an ancient art rooted in Andhra Pradesh's cultural history, has evolved to adapt to contemporary tastes, transforming leather puppets into modern artefacts like lampshades and more. Beyond preserving a cultural heritage dating back to 200 BC, this art form sustains artisans' livelihoods, particularly from the Marathi Balija community. Embracing both tradition and innovation, Tollu Bommalu ensures the continuation of a rich legacy, weaving enchanting tales and craftsmanship into the cultural fabric of Andhra Pradesh.

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