It has now been two decades since contemporary themes and recent historical personalities have lit up the shadow puppetry screen in Orissa. Its practitioners still call their art Ravana Chhaya, though the themes have ceased to be just from the Ramayana. They aren’t the nomadic Bhat tribes who used to hop villages, displaying their light-and-shade art. The perforated leather puppets continue to be propped upon bamboo sticks, but it is electric bulbs—not oil lamps—lending them the glow. The ethos have changed.
Gourang Charan Das is an example. Having done his PhD in puppet theatre, this villager from north-central Orissa is keen to use his art as a catalyst for social change. The tales narrate the issues of illiteracy, casteism, dowry deaths and health matters like HIV/AIDS. “It’s another multimedia product,” claims the scholar, who has conceptualised shows also on Mahatma Gandhi (Bapu Katha) and Pt Nehru (Jawahar—The Apostle of Peace).
It all began in 1991 when Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts sought to revive Ravana Chhaya that had only two performing troupes. Within four years, Gourang set up the Sriram Institute of Shadow Theatre at Kutarimunda—not far from his native Khamar off Talcher. “Improvisation feeds any art,” he says.