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A Tale of Shadows

Author: Sandeep Hota

Project Manager, Utsha

‘Karagoz? Did I hear that right?’. My enquiring gaze was met by Dr. Gouranga Dash’s earnest nod. It was the second day of a rather engaging workshop on shadow puppetry at Utsha Foundation for Contemporary Art. Dr. Dash or Gouranga bhai as he was fondly referred to by the artists , had just been explaining to us the shadow puppetry culture around the world . It was an eye-opener for me. I had just returned from Bali and had witnessed the staging of the Balinese shadow theatre — wayang kulit. It was a commercial success for Indonesian tourism ever since it had been designated as a ‘Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. The subject matter of much of wayang is from the ancient Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Supposedly, our ancient mariners took this form of entertaining storytelling to these isles.The modern truth of course is that shadow puppetry is a dying art form in Odisha and much of India. Irony much?

Its origins are shrouded in myth. India , China or Greece are favoured as points of origin. What is known is that it was referred to in many of India’s ancient texts including the Kamasutra. Plays were written in Sanskrit specifically for this form of story telling. You can imagine a bunch of people in a balmy summer evening in an Indian village or city watching in rapt attention as the shadows told their tale. Maybe a whistle or catcalls for some bawdy humour? Or you could imagine a resplendent court with the king laughing uproariously at the shadow clown’s joke. Why humour you ask? Puppetry, with its representations of human form singularly lends itself to satire and some very interesting alter ego depictions. Not much has changed I suppose. We still laugh at characters on screen representing someone else. Just the shadows have receded.

I went back home that night and called up my Turkish ex-housemate, Orkun, in London. ‘ So you heard about this puppet called Karagoz?’ Stunned silence. ‘ How did you hear about that ? It’s my favourite puppet show since when I was a kid. Karagöz and Hacivat!’ I had a smile on the other side of the phone listening to his excitement.

About the Author

Sandeep Hota is a practising management consultant based in Bhubaneswar with an abiding interest in the arts. He spends his time volunteering at Utsha on conceptualising and managing different art projects. He has also represented Utsha at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017.

For more on the shadow puppet workshop at Utsha please visit our YouTube channel for the playlist Chhai – The Shadow.

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