Brass Engraving and Enamelling Craft Of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan

If there is one distinctive craft of our country, which is practised in the cities of Moradabad and Jaipur, that can truly be attributed to the design idiom of the Arabic and Persian tradition, combined with the delicate metal chasing and colouring skill sets of the Indian metal artisan, it would be the metal enamelling craft. 

This art technique is also described by the French term ‘Champleve’ .It describes the art form , wherein, the metal , on which a design is Repoussed, Chased or Blocked is highlighted by the filling of colours. In the Late 19th Century CE, G.C. M. Birdwood, the art historian, had referred to this art form as a fine example of the extraordinary skill and design sensibility of the Indian Artisan. During those times, the Champleve art was more widely spread then it is today. He mentions that it was produced in the regions, which are now Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir, albeit with certain localised unique features. 

The two Major designs that are popular with The craftsmen are the ‘Neeli chikan’ and ‘Marodi’ . The Neeli chikan is a multi coloured floral work, where as the Marodi involves chasing of very delicate and minute creeper and floral patterns, which are usually enamelled with a single black colour. The designs are mostly floral or geometric, but on certain items, depending on the target customer, Hindu Gods and goddesses are also represented along with animals and birds. 

The product to be chased and enamelled is cast with Brass alloy. The craftsman then engraves the design on the cast metal product, using a fine stylus, chisel and a hammer. The graven portion is then filled with enamel. Sometimes the Marodi vases are silver or gold plated to enhance their richness. The colouring material used is silicates and borates of different metallic salts which are mixed with glass. The colours are more or less permanently set by baking the finished product. 

The craftsmen of both Jaipur and Moradabad produce plethora of products. Items such as the Vases, Decorative Plates, Fruit bowls, Pen jars, Lamp stands, Paan Dhans, Paan trays and Spittoons are utility oriented. However the artisans of Jaipur also specialise in producing animals and birds, like Elephant, Camel, Horse (with or without riders), Peacocks and Parrots etc. In the days gone by, during the reign of the numerous princely states, intricate artwork was executed on the sword hilts, scabbards, shields and some furniture items of the Royalty. 

Unfortunately, due to the diminishing demand for high quality Brass Enamel products and also due to the socio-economic changes that are defining the life of the artisans, the crafts production has impacted. Even the number of craftsmen pursuing the craft has reduced. Much work has to be undertaken by the concerned agencies to keep this unique craft alive. 


Tholu Bommalatta (The Play of the Leather Puppet


As the saying goes in Telugu language, “Tholu Bommalata, thomabai amade poyi chudavale”, meaning thereby, one should go and watch a Leather puppet show, even if it is performed some two hundred miles away. That was the interest and patronage rendered by the village folk, in the days of the past.

Let me recollect a few of my childhood experiences; it was in the middle of forties, as a carefree school going child, I saw in the company of my friends, a bullock cart carrying some people and a few donkeys, laden with huge bamboo woven baskets and many other gunny cloth wrapped parcels, passing by on the muddy cart track, in front of my school. They were proceeding to the “Chavadi”, the village square, where the elders meet, often during the evenings, to sit in judgement of various issues concerning the village. The chavadi , which, normally is a platform built around a Raavi manu (Peepal tree)or Vepa Manu (Neem tree), providing shelter to the itinerant travellers , who are often performing artists, such as the “Gadde yerikalavalu’, Domerevalu, Budabudukalavalu,Tholu Bommalatavalu Etc., entertain the villagers with their unique repertoire of music, dance, Song, using visual tools like puppets and Pattachitras (painted scrolls). Domerata and Tholu Bommalatta were the two folk performances that evoked a lot of enthusiasm among the village children . The visitors that day, were the “Tholu Bommalata valu”(the Leather Puppeteers).To the eager enquiries of the young excited children ,  were told  that it would be “ Repo mapo”,tomorrow or day after. The village elders had to be consulted and permission sought for scheduling the show.

The time weighed heavily and minutes passed like hours –finally as the moment  approached, the families prepared for a long night of entertainment. They brought with them grass and palm leaf mats to squat on, some eatables to munch and water in brass jars to quench the thirst. We settled down to a night of magical fantasy. The usually, still night of the village was awakened to the resounding music of the Jingles, Cymbals and the Dholaks, played by the musicians of the troupe. This was accompanied by the shrill, yet lively narration in song, reverberating throughout the night. The stage being a white cotton screen fastened to either end of two poles firmly planted into the ground. Behind the screen a wooden platform acted as the stage, on which the musicians and the performers handled the puppets. The screen was back lit with kerosene lanterns or Petromax lights. The puppeteers hold the puppets against the screen and move them as per the needs of the scene which is being narrated in high pitched singing. The kaleidoscopic movement of the colours and shadows of the leather puppets, highlighted by the backlighting, kept us children and adults alike in  rapt wonderment .The highly charged emotional experience lasted in our minds for months and even after so many years, brings back nostalgic memories.

Andhra Pradesh puppeteers generally adopt the themes from great Indian Epic The Ramayana-  the popular items being  “Sundara kanda”, “ Lanka Dhahanamu”, “Yudha kandam”etc. The repertoire also includes important themes from The Mahabharata- “Virata Parvamu”, “Draupadi vastrabharanamu” etc. At regular intervals , the puppeteers provide comic relief to the audience with the comedy characters , Bangarakka , Jutupoligadu and Kethigaddu. Through the medium of these characters, the puppeteers render in an inimitable script, a commentary on the current social issues. At the beginning of the show, after the customary invocation to Lord Ganesha, The Master puppeteer, acknowledges the village elders for their patronage and shower praises on them and the various communities inhabiting the village, such as the Potters, Goat herds, Weavers and all those who would be providing them, remuneration, which is mostly in kind. Most of the puppeteers speak chaste Marathi. It is likely, a few centuries back, they would have migrated from current Maharastra region, having accompanied the maratta armies moving south to establish their suzerainty over the smaller kingdoms. Probably they entertained the soldiers in the army camps. Consequently, in those places where it was conducive and prospective enough, they became permanent settlers. Hence you will find puppeteer groups located in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Over time some migrated to Orissa and West Bengal also. It is also likely, during those times, some troupes migrated to south east Asian countries, such as the present Indonesia, Thailand , Cambodia and Vietnam which have similar forms of leather puppetry and the performances are quiet popular, even to this day.

In the days gone by leather puppetry was not just an entertainment media, but was deeply involved in the mosaic of faiths and beliefs, reflecting the socio-economic structure of the village life. It was patronised by the villagers as a ritual to propitiate the weather gods to shower good rains, so as to reap a good harvest. It was also performed as a thanksgiving to the pantheon of gods.

The life of the community of leather puppeteers was that of ease and comfort, for they were essential to the wellbeing of the village and hence were often provided with cultivable lands by the erstwhile Royal families, Zamindars, as well as the village elders, which are even to this day, being cultivated by the descendants of the puppeteers.

After every performance, each and every family of the village would give dakshina or offering to the troupe, according to their individual capacity, which was mostly in kind.

One can appreciate the acute sense of business acumen of the puppeteers, who in order to provoke the villagers to agree to organise more shows, shower praises on the elders of another village, where they had earlier performed. This is done, without of course, antagonising the present village elders. They praise the shepherds for maintaining and improving the herd size and quality. The pleased shepherds would provide them a sheep or goat the following day. Same is the case with the other professional communities of the village, such as the Potters, the weavers, cobblers and even the toddy tappers, who provide them with a gourd or two full of toddy(palm Liquor), to let them relax their weary bones after  a long night of performance. The puppeteers use the characters; Juttupoligadu and Bangarakka , the comedy couple puppets to provide comic interludes often targeting some specific people in the village, subtly soliciting them to be liberal in their offering.

Alas, the days of the puppeteers have come to any end, what with the advance of modernity, with its cinema houses and more recently the television and the video. None of the younger generation cares much for leather puppetry for entertainment. On the other hand, the gradual erosion of faiths, beliefs, customs and traditions of the past, Leather puppetry as a propitiatory or thanksgiving ritual is no more sought after.

This situation has made the life of the leather puppeteers, one of poverty and continuous struggle. Even the lands granted to their fore fathers by the Royal families and Zamindars, have become, over the years, fragmented and non-viable for effective cultivation.

Over the years puppetry as performing art has declined, but thanks to the efforts of the All India Handicrafts board and the co-operation of the various State Handicrafts Emporia, leather puppets as art pieces, decoratives, as well as those dovetailed for functional purposes, have become popular among interior decorators and connoisseurs of art. This change has helped some of the puppeteers. The government has also been using performing art form of leather puppetry, as a tool of mass communication, to disseminate socio-economic messages, such as   family planning and other welfare programmes, addressing the rural population, with reasonable success.

Traditionally it was believed that the hide used by the Puppeteers should be of Deer, as it was considered auspicious and only that could represent the divinity. But over the years due to ban on wild life hunting, Goat and Sheep skin is the preferred hide. The skins are salted, sun dried and rubbed with specific tools to thin translucent parchments, which are cut into shapes of the puppets representing various characters of the play. Finally the puppets are coloured with mineral and vegetable pigments. The jewellery and the garments are finely delineated with perforations and nicks.  

Though many decades have passed since I last witnessed a Tholu Bommalatta performance in a rural setting, the images still linger in all vividity.

Jasthi Ramaiah


Note: Late Shri.Jasthi Ramaiah, retired in 1992 from O/O the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) as Director Of Design and Technical Development Centre, Bangalore. He is credited with helping Leather Puppeteers to dovetail their craft for Decorative and functional purposes, which has ensured the continuity of the craft. What started as small experiment in the Village of Nimmalakunta in Andhra Pradesh is providing sustenance to hundreds of Puppeteer families today.

He is also instrumental in rediscovering and promoting the Nakashi scroll Paintings of Telangana (Cherial crolls) and the various Tribal Crafts of Bastar District in Chattisgarh state.

D. Chalapathi Rao, Who is the recipient of the year 2020 Padmashri award for his proficiency and excellence in Leather Puppetry craft, is from Nimmalakunta Village In Andhra Pradesh and is one of first few to have been promoted by shri. Jasthi Ramaiah in The early sixties of last millaneum.