Shadow Puppetry in South India
by Sandra L. Kowalczyk

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Grades 5-8

Suggested Curriculum Areas

Reading/language arts, art, social studies


Students will develop new knowledge and an appreciation of traditional stories, oral storytelling and shadow puppetry traditions in south India. Students will learn and use elements and techniques of this traditional art form.


Students will read a variety of literature from India, including folktales and fables. Individuals or small groups of students will select a scene or story to script, work together to design and craft shadow puppets of characters and scenery, narrate a story, manipulate the figures, give character appropriate voices, select or create appropriate music, and choreograph sound effects and movement.

Lesson Outline

Shadow Puppetry is an ancient art form that originated in India. The activities include an introduction to the tradition of shadow puppetry, an exploration of stories, crafting shadow puppets, developing and rehearsing scripts and a culminating performance.

Background information for teachers and students

The ancient art of shadow puppetry drama, in which shadow images of elaborately handcrafted puppets are projected onto a screen, is over one thousand years old. Originating in India, shadow puppetry traveled to Southeast Asia and Turkey and is also part of the cultural traditions of China and Japan.

Shadow puppets are flat puppets, usually made of leather, lightly pressed on a translucent screen with a bright light behind. Traditional shadow puppets are 2-dimensional and perforated to create interesting shadow patterns. Split bamboo or cane sticks are attached vertically to the puppets for handling and manipulation.

Before the coming of television and movies, shadow puppetry was a popular form of entertainment and education in south India. Puppeteers would travel from village to village with their families, household effects, puppets, props, and musical instruments, to enthrall the villagers with their shadow dramas. Shadow puppetry was a family enterprise, with fathers passing down the oral stories and handmade puppets to their sons. The shadow plays were often based on episodes from the ancient epic stories, the Ramayana and Mahubarata. All performances are held outdoors after sundown and can last well into the night or a series of nights.

Introduction to Shadow Puppetry:

Interview with Lakshman Rao, shadow puppeteer in Tamil Nadu, India, July 2003

Having repeatedly heard leather shadow puppetry in south India referred to as “a dying art on the brink of extinction,” I was overcome with delight to be afforded the opportunity to spent time with Lakshman Rao, a shadow puppeteer in Tamil Nadu, India. Through a translator Lakshman spoke of his life and his art. An agile man of about 50 years old, Lakshman and his wife have six children, a daughter, 16, and five sons, ages five to adulthood. Although his two grown sons currently perform with him, due to the popularity of television, movies, and other forms of entertainment, the opportunities for making a living performing shadow dramas have dramatically declined. His sons have turned to selling maps and bangles to supplement their income.

Lakshman, is a “thool paavai koothu kalaigar,” a leather puppet drama master, as was his father and grandfather. A puppet master is a virtual warehouse of oral stories passed down from generation to generation. Well versed in the long and complicated epic tales, a puppet master skillfully and dramatically narrates the stories, manipulates the puppet figures, interprets characters and voices of each, produces sound effects punctuating speech and movement, sings, and cues the musical accompaniment. Furthermore, he creates figures from hides of goats, incises patterns into the leather that create shadow effects, hand paints the puppets with paints he creates from natural sources, assembles the figures, and repairs aging and damaged puppets.

Lakshman demonstrated the labor intensive process he goes through to create translucent puppets from goat skins he purchases a local market. He sprinkles a skin with water, balls it up, and puts it in an earthen pot with a cover. The pot is then buried in the ground to keep the skin inside moist and pliable. A strong smell, he indicated, is a good sign. After removing the skin from pit where it was buried, with his hands he pulls off the goat hair. The skin is stretched out on the ground and held taut with wooden pegs, where it is left to dry. Using a wooden handled scraper with a metal blade, he scrapes off any remaining hair from the skin. The paws, and other unusable portions, are cut off. He rolls the skin, then flips it over and rolls in the other direction, to flatten it out.

With a pointed stick he draws the puppet outline in charcoal. He then goes over the fine black lines with a red dye and brushes off the charcoal residue. For the next step, he holds a burning candle under an earthenware pot until the bottom turns black, scrapes off the accumulation, and with a cotton-tipped wooden stick, outlines the puppet with the black soot. Next, he paints the other colors on both sides of the puppet figure. During the performances the colors of the figures clearly show through the thin cotton cloth backlit screens. After cutting out the figure, he uses string to attach a branch to the base of puppet and each limb of the puppet. The multigenerational collection of the Rao family goat leather shadow puppets numbers over 500 characters.

Lakshman Rao

Shadow Puppets

Click on the photos to see larger views
Photos taken by J. Freund and D. Roseland

During the performance the puppeteer sits behind a screen fashioned from a white veshti, a rectangular length of cotton cloth worn by men. When worn as a garment, a veshti is wrapped around the waist and tucked into the waistband. To create a screen, a rope is attached above and below the fabric to stretch it taut. Lakshman points out a blue cloth frame he added around the veshti to resemble the curtain at a cinema. The screen is backlit with a bright overhanging lamp. While he, his wife, and their sons each portray character voices and sing, Lakshman alone sits behind the screen and manipulates all of the puppets and creates the sound effects. He demonstrates how he ties a wooden shoe sole to his foot to make the sounds of walking and for crashing sounds when puppets characters battle. He devised another clever gadget from a plastic pipe drilled with holes, with cellophane wrapped with string over the openings. He blows through an opening on one end to create an airy buzz, the sound of the character Hanuman, from the epic Ramayana, flying through the air.
After sundown Lakshman and his family set up their veshti screen, unpacked their puppets, and invited us to enter the mesmerizing world of the shadow play.

Whereas shadow plays in Java, Indonesia, known as wayang kulit, begin and end with a tree shaped figure representing all forms of life, shadow play performances in India open with a figure of the Hindu deity Ganesh. As a sign of respect for the elephant headed Ganesh, god of wisdom and remover of obstacles, the performance began with a song sung to him.

Musical accompaniment during the performance was provided by Lakshman’s wife playing the harmonism, a keyboard instrument with an accordion type box, and his son playing a mrdangam, a type of drum. A dolak is another type of drum played during shadow puppet performances.

We were thoroughly entertained by the comic antics of a “komali” or joker puppets. These characters are used to provide comic relief and deliver political messages by poking fun at politicians, or are used to prompt thought on social issues or injustices.

The story drama presented that evening was the “Kiskinda Kantam,” an episode of the epic, Ramayana. Events surrounding the abduction of Sita lead to this episode in which we meet the monkeys, Vali and his brother Sugriva, and the loyal Hanuman. The heroic Rama befriends Hanuman and Sugriva and slays the wrongdoer, Vali. Subsequently, Sugriva and Hanuman assemble a huge army and set out to find Sita.

Throughout the performance I moved back and forth, watching the shadow drama first from the side of the screen that captivated the audience, and then from behind the screen where Lakshman single handedly brought a cast of characters to life. The experience was enthralling, like being invited to sit behind the curtain with the grand illusionist, the Wizard of Oz.


Introduction to Stories from India:

Folktales and fables featuring human and/or animal characters can be readily scripted for shadow puppet dramas.
One of India's most influential contributions to world literature is the Panchantra, a collection of Indian animal fables traced back to over fifteen hundred years ago. Its’ self-proclaimed purpose was to educate the sons of royalty. Consisting of five books of animal fables and magic tales, the stories were traditionally passed from generation to generation and served to instruct moral behavior. Tales from the Panchantra are still widely retold to children today.

Shadow plays were often based on episodes from the ancient Hindi epics, the Ramayana and Mahabarata. The Ramayana, extolling the adventures of Rama, is one of the most beloved stories of India. With origins in India over 2000 years ago, the tale of Rama was carried initially by storytellers and has taken root throughout much of Southeast Asia, including the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia. The Ramayana has long been a powerful theme in Indian visual and performing arts, literature and religion. The story lives on today through shadow puppetry and other art forms, such as poetry, literature, comic books, film, drama, and painting.

Credited to the Indian poet sage Valmiki, the Ramayana was written in Sanskrit in 1500 B.C. as a long poem of over 25,000 couplets. The Ramayana has inspired poets for centuries, resulting in many versions in the various languages of India, including: Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Tamil, Kannada, Kashmiri, Telugu, and Malayalam. A version of the epic was written by Kamban, a poet in the eleventh century A.D., in Tamil, a language spoken in south India.

The main plot of the tale begins with the noble prince Rama, winning the hand of his bride, the beautiful Sita, in an amazing show of strength. Groomed to inherit the throne, following an act of betrayal, the much loved Rama is banished from his fathers’ kingdom to the forest for fourteen years to wander in exile with Sita and his loyal brother, Lakshmana.

By the first half of the epic, Sita is abducted by the ten-headed demon king, Ravana, and taken captive on his island kingdom. The villain king tries to force Sita to forget Rama as he tries to win her love. Further episodes involve Rama and Lakshmana’s quest to rescue Sita with the aid of the monkey king, Hanuman, and his army. When Rama eventually succeeds to his father’s throne, people are skeptical as to whether Sita was able to uphold her honor during her abduction. Sita ultimately reclaims her virtuousness after successfully enduring a trial by fire. Their reconciliation is followed by the heroic couple’s return home and a lavish coronation that marks the beginning of a prosperous and peaceful reign of Rama.

Countless versions of English translations of the Ramayana exist, in print and online, from the scholarly and complex, to the watered down and superficial. Seek out and select versions to match the levels of your students.

Karagam Dancer Puppet

Display image of Lakshman Rao, leather puppet drama master, from Tamil Nadu, India, holding shadow puppet of folk dancer.

Handout or read aloud background information about karagam, a folk dance of south India. Use template of dancer provided in this unit to model the making of a flat puppet with limbs united at joints.

Karagam is a rural folk dance performed balancing a pot on the head to musical accompaniment. Traditionally, karagam was performed by the villagers with water pots balanced on their heads as a way to praise of the rain goddess Mari Amman and river goddess, Gangai Amman. Karagam dancers once balanced earthen pots of sprouted grains on their heads while performing intricate steps and elaborate body and arm movements. Today the pots are made of bronze and stainless steel and are decorated with cones of flower arrangements. A paper parrot perched on top rotates as the dancer moves. Both male and female performers, singly or in pairs, perform this dance throughout Tamil Nadu, India. Acrobatics, such as dancing on a rolling block of wood, climbing up and down a ladder or threading a needle while bending backwards, are part of the performance.

Click on the photos to see larger views

Karagam Folk Dancers

Photos taken by J. Freund and D. Roseland

Materials needed for shadow puppet construction:

  • Template of karagam dancer puppet, adapted by the author of this unit from a drawing made for her by puppet master, Lashsman Rao.
  • Large tag board or experiment with other materials, such as exposed x-ray film and thick sheets of plastic laminate.
  • Hole punches in various sizes
  • Assorted acrylic paints or markers.
  • Masking or plastic tape or sewing needle and heavy thread.
  • Brass paper fasteners
  • Exacto knives
  • Scissors
  • Bamboo kabob skewers or dowel rods sections or coat hangers or other rigid wire.
  • Optional: means to laminate puppets or shellac

    Creating Shadow Puppet:

    1. For demonstration purposes, use template provided to create a shadow puppet out of tag board, x-ray film, or other materials. Use tracing paper, carbon paper, or create an overhead transparency of template and trace outline projected onto tag board taped to a wall. The puppet can also be made with stationary legs.

    2. Cut out puppet parts.

    3. Make cuts and perforations in body with paper punches or exacto knives. Protect the table a piece of corrugated cardboard. Holes in body and clothing are for decoration as well as to allow light to show through the parts to highlight details, such as a mouth or bangles and to create interesting shadow patterns. Always have adult supervision while working with sharp tools.

    4. Paint or color the puppet parts on both sides so puppets can switch directions during performance. If using tag board, puppets will be more durable if laminated. Another option is to shellac. Always test first to insure that colors don’t run.

    5. Punch holes in the shoulders arms, legs, skirt, head, and headdress as marked.

    6. Assemble by attaching paper fasteners through the holes at the joints. Leave fasteners loose enough to allow the joints to move freely.

    7. Fasten straight sticks, rods or wire to puppet’s hand and body by sewing on with heavy thread, string, or tape. Run a central rod or wire from the head down the body and through one leg for at least six inches below foot to serve as a handle.

    Before designing their puppet patterns, provide ample opportunities for students to explore books and websites for ideas on designing the particular character they chose. Encourage them to pay attention to textile designs and embellishments as these can really enhance the puppet figure’s visual interest. Provide opportunities for students to experiment with materials and methods of construction.

    Shadow Puppet Performance Practice

    Provide opportunities for students to:
    1. Practice manipulating puppets
    2. Learn lines
    3. Rehearse play
    4. Become familiar working behind the screen.
    5. Learn to project voice
    6. Incorporate music, sound effects, props and scenery into performance.

    The Stage

    In South India, a veshti, a rectangular length of cotton cloth wrapped around a man’s waist and tucked into the waistband, would be hung taut between two trees to create a screen. A suitable stage can be constructed by stretching a thin white sheet over an appropriately sized wooden frame and setting on long tabletop. Use an high intensity overhanging lamp, clip on variety preferred. Alternatives include a slide projector or an overhead projector.

    Assessment ideas

    Create a checklist as a scoring guide to assess the sequence and process.

    Reading: dramatically retells a traditional tale using story elements of setting, characters, and conflict/plot; demonstrates understanding of structure of story.

    Writing: adapts a piece of literature to a workable script through the use of dialogue and movement; demonstrates ability to reflect and critique; Artistic dimensions: demonstrates understanding of the stories and puppetry tradition through music, theater, and visual arts;

    Problem solving: demonstrates creative and structurally sound design principles; Makes connections to other discipline areas; Makes cross-cultural connections: notices both commonalities and differences between stories from India and stories from other cultural traditions; Uses a variety of materials carefully and cooperatively with others; Human diversity: demonstrates an understanding of the cultural expression.

    Although a shadow puppet performance is a culminating activity of this unit, bear in mind that it is not solely about performance, but exploration and meaning making.

    Additional readings for teachers

    Kamat, K.L. “Leather Puppets of India.

    Kowalczyk, S. (2003) “Entering the Story World through Shadow Puppetry: An Interaction of Literature, Art, Music, and Drama,” Wisconsin State Reading Association Journal.

    Narayan R.K. (1987) The Ramayana. New Delhi: Vision Books. Retelling of Tamil version by Kamban.

    Schuman, J. M. (1982) Art from Many Hands. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications

    Although the Asian arts chapter features the stylized wayang kulit, Javanese shadow plays in Indonesia, this section contains very useful background information, suggestions for staging, instructions for puppet construction and building a framed screen. Includes many other multicultural art projects.

    Tejada, I. (1993) Brown Bag Ideas From Many Cultures. Worester, MA: Davis Publications

    Like the previous book, features Javanese shadow puppet construction. Includes multicultural art project ideas using inexpensive materials.

    Additional readings for students

    Many versions of the Ramayana are readily available. Seek out and select versions to match the levels of your students. Although out of print, my middle school students enjoyed the following retelling that simplified the original without losing the dignity and beauty of the story.

    Gaer, J. (1954) The Adventures of Rama: The Story of the Great Hindu Epic Ramayana. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

    Krishnaswami, Uma. The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha. Illus. by Maniam Selven. 1996. 100p. Linnet, (0-208-2442-5).
    Gr. 4-up. Seventeen tales about Ganesha, the much-beloved Hindu god with the elephant head and the human body, are retold here with a storyteller's flair. Provide background information and sources for the reader.

    Jones, C. and Parameswaran, G. “Tales From India,” Book Links, Dec/Jan 2000-2001 (v. 10 no.3) Includes an introduction to storytelling in India and an annotated list of books that lend themselves to traditional telling.

    Shankar. Treasury of Indian Tales: Book 1. Illus. by Debabrata Mukerji. 1993. 105p. Children's Book Trust, (81-7011-038-6).
    Gr. 3-5. Twelve folktales, well known in India today, told in a storyteller's voice with a good deal of dialogue.

    Shivkumar. Stories from Panchatantra, Book III. Illus. by Debabrata Mukerji. 1993. 65p. Children's Book Trust, (81-7011-044-0).
    Gr. 2-5. Collection of animal fables.

    Spagnoli, Cathy, and Paramasivam Samanna. Jasmine and Coconuts: South Indian Tales.1998. 175p. Libraries Unlimited, (1-56308-576-3).
    Gr. 2-up. More than 45 short tales from South India, rich in dialogue and easy to retell. Tales are presented thematically according to values, such as, simplicity versus greed; respect for family and elders; hard work and study; and wit and humor. Introductory sections give background information on South India's history and culture. Includes useful information for anyone reading or telling stories from South India.

Puppetry Websites
For elementary and middle school. Provides a brief introduction to characters from the Ramayana; Rama, the hero of the tale; Sita, Rama’s loyal wife; Hanuman, a great monkey god with super natural strength and powers; and Jatayu, a giant bird who attacks the demon Ravana in his flying chariot. Includes templates and instructions for making a shadow puppet of each.
Photos of painted shadow puppets and other puppets from India.
This site provides an introduction to the various types of puppets from India and a profile of Indian puppeteers.

Ramayana Websites
An excellent academic site with many related resources, especially for students of various ages.
Ramayana in comic book form.
A very short version of the Ramayana for children.
Includes lesson plan and synopsis of the story of the Ramayana.
Includes lesson plan, Rama and the Ramayana: Lessons in Dharma . Includes a short version of story the Ramayana.
This site links to internet resources that include Ramayana adaptations, histories of the text, analyses and course plans.

Tales from India

Jones, C. and Parameswaran, G. “Tales From India,” Book Links, Dec/Jan 2000-2001 (v. 10 no.3). Includes an introduction to storytelling in India and an annotated list of books that lend themselves to traditional telling.

Website Collections of Tales from the Panchatantra

Other Grade levels Lessons: can be adapted for use with all grade levels.

Other discipline areas: world literature, world cultures, drama, multicultural arts

Special needs students:
Provide support as needed.

Connections to Standards:

English Language Arts

A.8.1 Use effective reading strategies to achieve their purposes in reading.

A.8.3 Read and discuss literary and nonliterary texts in order to understand human experience.

A.8.4 Read to acquire information.

B.8.1 Create or produce writing to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Social Studies

E.8.3 Describe the ways in which local, regional, and ethnic cultures may influence the everyday lives of people.

E.8.10 Explain how language, art, music, beliefs, and other components of culture can further global understanding or cause misunderstanding.

E.8.14 Select examples of artistic expressions from several different cultures for the purpose of comparing and contrasting the beliefs expressed.


E.8.5 Use the visual arts to express ideas that can't be expressed by words alone

G.8.1 Know that visual images are important tools for thinking and communicating

I.8.5 Understand that art reflects the time and place in which it was created

I.8.6 Understand how creating or looking at art brings out feelings

I.8.7 Work independently and collaboratively to produce ideas and works of art

J.8.3 Learn ways different cultures think about art

K.8.1 Connect their knowledge and skills in art to other areas, such as the humanities, sciences, social studies, and technology

J.8.10 Develop the ability to reflect and talk about works of art

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