The shadow play or puppet show with leather figures is an art form of great antiquity. References to it are found as early as the 12th century. Shadow play flourished in different parts of India and the figures of the various characters of the play were designed in leather, with the play being performed by projecting the shadows of these puppets on to a cloth screen.
In Karnataka the puppeteers are well versed in music and in the themes of the great epics. Andhra Pradesh has several families of traditional puppeteers called tolu bommalata. Odisha has a tradition of leather puppets and of puppet shows known as ravanchaya. In Kerala, tolpava koothu (tol means leather, pava means puppet, and koothu means play) originated in the Palaghat district where it is still performed in the temples of Bhadrakali as part of the ritualistic worship of the goddess.
The techniques used to produce the puppets is complex. Goat or sheep leather is used and skin is first stretched taut and is nailed at the corners to keep it in position. It is then smeared and rubbed with ash, and exposed to the sun till it is dry. The puppet figure is then drawn on the leather and cut out with a fine chisel. Ornaments and clothing are drawn by drilling different kinds of holes in the skin for which special pointed chisels are used. Colour plays an important and ritual part in the making of these puppets. The colours used to tint and paint the leather are obtained from vegetable and mineral sources. These colours retain their lustre and brightness for a long time. To prevent the puppets from bending a thin strip of smoothened bamboo is fastened vertically along the middle on either side. The arms of the puppet are provided with movable joints. There are puppets for birds, animals, and trees and even for the sea. Puppets of deer and snakes are provided with joints that enable them to bend and move their bodies.
In order to find new markets the makers of the leather puppets have used the same techniques to make lampshades in different shapes and sizes. These create striking illumination on being lighted.