Ravana Chhaya: 6000 year old Shadow Puppet Play of Odisha - Be On The Road | Live your Travel Dream!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Ravana Chhaya: 6000 year old Shadow Puppet Play of Odisha

Shadow Puppetry of Odisha that orginated somewhere in the 5th Century BC

Did you know that shadow puppetry originated in India around the 5th century BC, about 6000 years back. Although exact point of origin has not been found, it has found mention in many ancient literary texts, such as Mahabharata of Vyasa (5th century BC), Mahabhasya of Patanjali (4th century BC), Arthasatra of Kautilya (2nd century BC), Kamasutra of Vatsyana (7th century AD) and Uttara Rama Charita and Mahaveera Charita of Bababhuti (8th century AD) among many others.

It is quite probable that you have seen this ancient art form in action in our Indian villages during a festival or other event. I have been privileged to see it at quite a few places in India during my school summer holidays when we traveled to different parts of the country. At that time, I never understood its heritage value, but now that I do, I yearn and hope to see more people and places try to keep shadow puppetry alive. For some weird reason, the mere sight of a shadow puppet play makes me feel like a child again.

Ancient Shadow Puppetry Culture of Odisha

My latest tryst with shadow puppetry came during my culture holiday to Odisha, where I got to meet the expert artist Dr. Gouranga Charan Dash and his team and where I got to immerse myself into the world of shadow puppet plays both from the front of the stage as well as backstage, which is way more fun in my opinion. This shadow puppet play is called ‘Ravaa Chhaya’ in Odisha. It goes by other names in different parts of India, such as ‘Tholu Bommalattam’ in Tamil Nadu, ‘Togalu Gombeeatta’ in Karnataka, ‘Tolu Bommalata’ in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, ‘Chamdya Chaya Bahulya’ in Maharashtra, ‘Tol Pavakoothu’ in Kerala and ‘Chaya Putul Nacha’ in West Bengal.

Shadow puppetry by Dr. Gouranga Charan Dash

In this shadow puppetry art form of Odisha, colored shadows, background voice overs and music present stories from the Ramayana, especially popular ones such as abduction of Sita and quest for Sita. While stories from Ramayana are the mainstay for Ravana Chhaya performances, many artists also present stories from Mahalaxmi Katha, Krishna Leela and even contemporary and modern stories.

Shadow puppet play of Odisha

The puppets of Ravana Chhaya are hand made using a single piece of untanned deer and cow hide. Either they are left in neutral color of the hide or they are colored using natural substances to depict clothes, jewellery, accessories, etc. The music which is played in the background is an interesting blend of folk, classic and modern with many traditional musical instruments such as tambourine, cymbal, daskathi, mridangam and tabla.

Leather puppets - part of the shadow puppetry heritage of Odisha

The entire Ravana Chhaya shadow puppetry performance is managed by a group of artists who don different hats. Some are in charge of playing the musical instruments, while the others are in charge of manipulating and controlling the puppets through the prop that is attached to its lowest part. Depending on the scene, there could be one or more people holding puppets against the light. And similarly with voice overs, it could be one person telling the story or it could be more than one. One of the specialties of Ravana Chhaya is the voice over where heavy emotional tones are used to convey the emotion of the scene to the audience.

When you are looking at the performance from the front, all you see is an empty white screen at the beginning and a play of still and moving puppets during the performance. When you are back stage (behind the white screen), it is a different world altogether. A maze of puppets are strewn all over the floor. Different artists are crouched below the white screen and are manipulating their puppets with their fingers to give that feel of life like motion to the audience. One of them who is the leader handles all the main characters, while the support staff handle the puppets which portray the other elements of the story, such as animals, birds, trees, etc. Behind these artists is the strong light source, which is instrumental in casting the shadow and behind them are the musicians who add beat and rhythm to the shadow puppet play.

Different props and themes in the shadow puppet play of Odisha

The sheer diversity of puppets, the beautiful flow of emotions in the voice overs, the melodious music and the popular stories makes Ravana Chhaya a riveting experience. And the way they bring characters to life through shadows, their movements, voices and music is what makes this ancient art form so very special.

Shadow puppetry of Odisha

Such gorgeous ancient art forms are to be treasured by the entire human race. This Indian heritage can certainly awaken the child in you and make you leave the auditorium with a big smile on your face, a spring in your step and pure joy in your heart and soul. I would certainly recommend experiencing Ravana Chhaya during your next holiday to Odisha.

Shadow Puppetry, ancient heritage of Odisha

Where to experience it:

Srirama Institute of Shadow Theatre, Ananda Ashram, near Kutari munda in the Angul district of Odisha. Ask for Dr. Gouranga  Charan Dash, Sri Prahlad Behera or Dr. Sabitri Dash.

How to get there:

Bhubaneshwar is the nearest airport. From Bhubaneshwar to the ashram is about a 4 hour road trip. The nearest railway station is Talcher, about 40 kms from the ashram.

Water Puppet Show

If you love puppet shows, you might want to check out the water puppet show of Vietnam, which I feel is one of the 7 must have experiences in Vietnam.

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