As the film opens, an artist can be seen adjusting a light bulb behind a white screen in a dingy room. That done, he pulls out some cutouts from a cardboard box — figures of animals and humans, even trees — and stacks them in a sequence. He is now ready to start the show. This is a peek into what happens behind the scenes of Ravan Chhaya, a shadow puppetry form from Odisha, that is documented in the film In the Shadow of Time. Delhi-based filmmaker and researcher Shankhajeet De’s debut documentary film, it won the National Award for
the Best Arts/Cultural Film this year. “Growing up in the state, I had always heard of Ravan Chhaya as the pride of Odisha and wanted to document it,” says De, whose only brush with filmmaking prior to this was a short commissioned film on veteran puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee, a couple of years ago. De’s association with Pudumjee, coupled with his Odia roots, propelled him to make a film on the art form that dates back to the 18th century. Based on episodes from the Vichitra Ramayana written by Oriya poet Viswanath Khuntia, the form is popular for its interplay of translucent and dark shadows. The cutouts used for creating the shadows are traditionally made of deerskin. The form is named after Ravan, as it is believed that Rama, a divine and illuminated being, does not cast a shadow.
“I had this very romantic idea of making a film to document the story behind this traditional art form,” says De. He adds, “I was told that Ravan Chhaya was performed by the community of Bhats, who mostly inhabit the village of Odash (in Angul district).”
So along with a few of his students from Delhi’s Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication — where he taught at the Department of Film and TV production for eight years before venturing into filmmaking full-time — as his crew members, De left for Odash in 2016. This was one of the many trips he made to Odash during the course of his research. When he started talking to people in Odash, he realised that his perception was very different from the ground reality.
As the film shows, Ravan Chhaya first came into national prominence in the 1970s, when the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) documented it as part of its larger project on puppetry as an art form. Kathi Das, a practitioner of the art, who belonged to the Bhat community, was even awarded by the SNA in 1978. Ironically, that’s when things began to look down. As Ravan Chhaya became popular, officials from the State and the Central governments started trickling to Odash, and made interventions, telling people how to make it better and more acceptable.
So the themes changed. From concentrating only on certain episodes from Vichitra Ramayana, Ravan Chhaya was now telling the entire story of the Ramayana in a crunched form. Traditional practitioners were ridiculed for their way of singing, which was termed “vulgar and crude”. To make it “high culture”, they were advised to sing in a certain way. “The official intervention turned out to be derogatory and counterproductive,” says De. “While people in Delhi and Bhubaneswar were clapping, the performance did not appeal to the villagers as much,” he says.
Since the governments were also handing out money to preserve the dying art, the Bhat community — which stuck to the traditional style — was derided, and many others in Odash appropriated the art form. “The Bhats don’t practise Ravan Chhaya anymore; they feel they won’t be allowed. They don’t have money and don’t even get offers for any shows,” says De.
However, the official intervention helped in some ways. “The screens became bigger, the artists were advised to sit and perform rather than stand, thereby allowing them more space to negotiate the puppets. Also, workshops were held, making people aware about the art form,” says De. He shared the National Award in the category with another Odia filmmaker, Shibu Prusty, for his 55-minute documentary The Lord of The Universe, based on the popularity of Lord Jagannath in the state.
The filmmaker is, meanwhile, on to his next documentary — on the seven different styles of Ramlilas performed in his home state. “Odisha is a culture zone, and I think I am in a unique position to explore that aspect. I grew up there, so I am an insider, but since I have spent 20 years in Delhi, I also have an outsider’s perspective,” he says.