The craft of making leather puppets is said to have originated in the small scenic village of Nimmala Kunta in Andhra Pradesh. But with the popularity of puppetry dwindling, this craft is being used to make a variety of beautiful decorative handicrafts
A long time ago, when the idiot box was yet to make its mark, traditional forms of entertainment like puppetry were extremely popular. This was especially true in the rural hinterland where it was appreciated and enjoyed not only for its entertainment value, but also viewed as a source of income. There were different clans across India that specialized in it, right from the making of the puppets to holding shows. However, with the onset of the electronic media, this traditional art form started to slowly lose its sheen, affecting the livelihood of those who were devoted entirely to it. While some found solace in different occupations like agriculture, there were others who found newer ways to sustain themselves from the craft itself – one of them being the leather puppeteers of Andhra Pradesh.
This story is about V. Srinavasalu and his wife Gangaratna, who are leather puppeteers-turned-craftspeople from the small village of Nimmala Kunta in Andhra Pradesh. According to Srinivasalu, his family has been in this profession for several decades. However, he did not join the core family trade; instead, he decided to take a slightly different route. He used the craft that he learned as a child and perfected as he grew up to make a variety of handicrafts. Today, at his temporary stall in Dilli Haat, he proudly displays an array of products from lampshades to wall hangings, priced from as low as Rs 150 to as high as Rs 20,000.
Talking about making handicrafts from leather, he says, “It is a very time-consuming job. At times some of the products like wall hangings may take up to 10 days to perfect.” Describing the technique, he explains that the leather has to be processed before it can be made ready for painting. Srinivasalu procures raw goat hide from the local market starting from Rs 250 for a piece of leather. It has to be then washed with hot water and dried to remove the hair from the skin. The leather has to be then beaten using a hammer into a very thin layer, which is a time-consuming process. After the base is made ready, the sketching is done and then colors are filled in. In case of puppets and wall paintings, small holes are punched into the sketching to allow light to pass through it so as to enhance the effect. Srinivasalu uses both vegetable and camel colors for the painting. After the coloring is done, the painting is cut on the outline and with some finishing touches, it is ready for sale. He says, besides the time and patience, one of the challenges he faces is the lack of funds for buying raw materials.
According to Srinivasalu, his paintings have a very long life if contact with water is avoided and if the paintings are regularly cleansed with coconut oil. He proudly says, “Our family owns puppets that are as old as 100 years. They have been preserved like that for ages.” He recalls an incident, “Last year one art collector came to my village and bought old puppets for almost Rs 3 to 3.5 lakhs. I sold him some of my own as well for Rs 50,000 to 60,000.”
He says that his entire family of six, including his two children, are in the trade. Though he himself could study only up to class III and his wife was unfortunate enough not to have had any eduction at all, he sends his children to school, thanks to the government support he has received to showcase his talent in many cities. He says, “We face a lot of trouble being uneducated. At least now we are able to educate our children.”
|"Our family owns puppets that are almost 100 years old. It has been preserved intact for ages by cleansing regularly with coconut oil" |
There are many crafts that are dying a slow death due to various reasons such as financial insecurity, government neglect, lack of a place to showcase the talent, dwindling customer base and so on. However, Srinivasalu was lucky in this aspect. He says, “The government has been very supportive of this craft, and has also issued me an artisan card.” Using the privileges provided by the card, he sets up temporary stalls in major exhibition centers, sometimes for a nominal cost and sometimes even for free. He says, “In government-organized exhibitions the cost for setting up a stall is nil, whereas we have to pay for participating in the exhibitions set up by private players.” For example, he says, “The Dilli Haat stall is for 15 days and we pay a small price of Rs 300 per day as rent. However, we also put up our stalls in government-sponsored exhibitions in many cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Varanasi, and Chandigarh for free." Sometimes the government also provides lodging facilities.
The exhibition season starts from October, when his sales are maximum, and ends by March. During the rest of the year he puts up a stall in private haats, exhibition centers, emporia etc. When asked about his wife’s contribution, he says, “Then there are some programs especially for women who are involved in the making of handicrafts. We participate in those exhibitions as well.”
So how much money does he make in a day? He claims, “Generally in Dilli Haat I have sales of Rs 10,000 to 15,000 per day. In other places it is around Rs 6,000 only.” Srinivasalu is unaware of terms such as recession and slowdown. He says, “These days there is a dip in the number of customers, but I think it is because of the heat.” His products are also exported. According to him, there are a few people who buy his products for exporting, but he is neither aware of the countries to where they are exported, nor the rate at which they are sold. On being asked as to why he doesn’t plan to export it directly rather than going through a middleman, he says, “I know a lot of money can be made by selling directly, but it needs a huge capital investment of Rs 10 to 12 lakh. Besides, there are a lot of things, like getting an export license number etc, which is a complicated process. But there are people I know who are exporting and making a huge profit out of it.”
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