Togalu gombeyaata in Karnataka, India
To light a candle is to cast a shadow.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
Welcome to The Library of Shadows, a VR experience devoted to Togalu gombeyaata, an ancient art form and living folk tradition from South India, specifically Karnataka. Shadow puppetry originated in India and China around the 1st century BCE. As a medium, it plays with the two most primal elements in the universe, darkness and light, and prefigures all other mediums, such as cinematography and VR, which use light, images, and projection screens in creative ways.
For most of the contemporary human world, true darkness no longer exists. Your cities and homes are bathed in artificial light and you spend hours each day looking at backlit phones, computers, or television screens. Because of this, few of you can imagine how your ancestors once related to the dark. For them, shadows didn’t simply signify the absence of light, rather they belonged to a world which had presence, mystery, sometimes even intention. This included ghosts, spirits, and other beings from other realms. Togalu gombeyaata creates art out of the magical substance of shadows: puppeteers bring characters to life, making them walk, dance, fight, and laugh, while music and narration accompany them.
The Library of Shadows shares four puppets from Samudra Manthan, a popular Hindu epic that tells the story of the eternal struggle between the gods (devas) and demons (asuras). The gods, having lost their power, ask the demons to help them obtain an elixir of immortality (Amrita), so as to regain their powers. To do so, the gods and demons must work with a large snake named Vasuki to churn a cosmic ocean of milk. In the process, treasures bubble to the surface, including a wish-fulfilling cow named Kamadhenu, a four tusked elephant named Airavata, and a winged horse named Uchchaihshravas. While the gods eventually obtain the elixir, the demons also get a small portion, which is why the struggle between good and evil remains till this day.
Enter The Library of Shadows and follow Vasuki the snake to experience the world of Togalu gombeyaata. Drum and dance to bring the puppets from Samudra Manthan to life. To learn more about this library, listen to the podcast or read the essay by Anurupa Roy, The Infinite Library’s expert in South Indian puppetry.