Cinema in Silhouette

Posted on February 1, 2010 in Culture-Vulture

Karuna Ahuja:

There is plenty of light.

We will paint with shadows

And the colour is darkness!

-Amar Sen

Lights , Camera, Action! Welcome to the world of HandShadowgraphy!.

Shadowgraphy or ombromanie is the art of performing a story or show using images made by hand shadows. This mode of entertainment is nothing but a sleight of hand. Like any other art form, innovation is the buzzword here. With bare hands and a bare screen,these shadowgraphers can build any story-the right story for the right kind of audience

But isn’t shadowgraphy just a pompous sounding name for something we have all indulged in at one time or another? With power shortages and darkened evenings it was a mere pastime to while the hours away. What more could there be to it than that?

There could, for one, be the details that meet the eye. Instead of a wall these shadowgraphers have a screen, a 4ft x 3ft sheet of frosted astrolon with an aluminium frame and a 55 W halogen lamp. Imagine the amazing evolution of the docile, practical , mundane shadows into a creative component of fiction and documentation, often complemented by music and sound effects. It is an art form which has immense possibilities and can be applied in different fields.

Shadows to amuse and entertain people dates back to the 4th century BC . Plato’s writings describe a procession of shadows moving across the wall. Whether he was referring to shadow theatre or puppetry is not clear .Records show shadow puppets were used in performances in China and India more than 2,000 years ago. The simplest shadow shows, created by human hands were particularly popular in the 19th century ,when a number of books were produced illustrating ways of animals and human beings appearing on walls, sometimes with the assistance of a few carefully positioned props.

In modern times, the art of “ombromanie” was made popular by Félicien Trewey, a French magician. At the age of fifteen, he ran away from home to become a magician and tight rope walker. Trewey popularized the art by making silhouettes of famous personalities with his hands. In 1889, he joined Alexander Herrmann in New York. After that many magicians began to imitate his “Shadowgraphy”. Other magicians who used hand shadows in their act includes David Devant , Edward Victor, and the duo Holden and Graham in which Max Holden was famous for his “Monkey in the Belfry” shadow. The magician well known today in shadowgraphy is an Australian, Raymond Crowe whose hand shadow act performed to the song “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong has become extremely popular, especially on YouTube.

In India, this art was popularised by the duo-Amar Sen and Sabyashachi Sen, both based in Kolkata. From animal figured like a horse and deer, to personalities like Saurav Ganguly and Mother Teresa, the duo’s alacrity with fingers has won them accolades from various quarters. Ranked 18th best in the world, they are Asia’s only representation at international level meets.

But against all the success and fame of hand shadowgraphy, there has been no spread of this art with all its potential. A few feeble attempts have been made to pass this off as another rainy day activity but the current potential of this art as a new, unique and novel medium of expression has been untapped and the art at its peak is all set to die if no more practitioners of this art are created. It is a must that a way of expression requiring nothing but a light, hands and a surface to convey an idea in a flash be taught and kept alive. It is one of the rare arts that is completely human and so simple that a child can perform and a sexagenarian can be intrigued at the content of the performance.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz and also a student of BITS Pilani.

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