(Last Updated on : 03/04/2014)
Bommalattam or puppet dance is very common in South India. In Tamil Nadu, marionettes are found in Salem, Kumbakonam and Mayiladuthurai i.e. both in Thanjavur district. Most often these are celebrated at temple festivals and exhibitions. Sometimes puppeteers perform in a tent and charge an entrance fee. Even though it is the least expensive form in terms of mobility and quantum of weight, it faces extinction from lack of patronage. The Mangala Gana Bommalatta Sabha, Sri Gana Natar Sabha, and Sri Murugan Bommalatta Sabha operate from Kumbakonam, while the Sri Rama Vilasa Kattabommu Nataka Sabha functions from Chinna Siragapatti in Salem district. In Kumbakonam, only Brahmans and, curiously, migrants from Saurashtra or Gujarat practise Bommalattam. In Salem, the Vanniyar community takes part. Five to seven people form a troupe, but a single artist presents the whole show. An assistant helps by picking up the right puppet, and musicians repeat the songs after the leader. Bommalattam continues almost as a family tradition, and all the members are involved in making the puppets, maintaining them, and performing. Raised platforms are built, the front hidden in such a way to reveal only the puppets. The large, i.e. 1 m-tall puppets are made of lightweight kalyana murungai wood i.e. from the Moringa oleifera tree, painted, and decked with rich costumes, ornaments, and lovely headdresses. Their hands are attached to two rods, the other joints controlled by strings.
Valli kalyanam i.e. 'Valli's wedding', Sita kalyanam i.e. 'Sita's Wedding', Harishchandra, Lavakusa i.e. 'Lava and Kusa', Nallatangal kathai i.e. 'Nallatangal's Story', and Markandeyan kathai i.e. 'Markandeya's Story' are the famous traditional tales found in Bommalattam. Of late, family planning and AIDS awareness programmes have been conducted in this form. The show begins with homage to God and continues with humorous and narrative sections. The buffoon is an extremely powerful role, displaying no limits to his fun and frolic. Through him, mythological figures gain contemporary currency as well.
Bommalattam refers to string puppets, but southern Tamil Nadu also has shadow theatre, called Tolu Bommalattam i.e. 'leather puppet dance'. According to some experts, only one puppeteer still performs in this traditional style, which throws beautiful coloured shadows. However, since leather is costly and requires a complicated process of treatment and transformation, he has started using cardboard and coloured cellophane.