Encouraged and nurtured by a small number of individuals around the globe, hand shadowgraphy – also called ombromanie – is an awe-inspiring and a one-of-its-kind art form. Entertaining and enamouring the world, it is the art of creating shadows using hands and fingers on a blank screen against a light source. More than anything else, it requires dexterity and flexibility of fingers and a creative mind capable of out-of-the box thinking.
Amar Sen and Sabyasachi Sen are professional hand shadowgraphers from India and have the world on their fingertips. Literally.
With common interests like music, mimicry and magic, they came together almost forty years ago to create this exquisite world of hand shadowgraphy in the country. They have enthralled audiences across the world with their storytelling in videos such as Let Calcutta Surprise You, Incredible India and the 2012 Kolkata Literary Meet anthem Ei Patay Oi Patay.
The characters in the story are created by the use of hands and fingers and the piece is backed by suitable sound and music. “Hand shadowgraphy is the representation of life, wherein different forms and ways of life merge into one another and can change right before your eyes,” says Amar Sen. The Sens are the only two artists from Asia who professionally engage in this art form, from among a total of nine artists across the world.
60-year-old Amar Sen has won the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Award for Versatile Excellence in 2000, the Heritage Samman Award for Hand Shadowgraphy in 2010 and the Kala Ratna Award for Versatile Talent in 2010. He is currently the Vice-President of the Federation of Indian Magic Association (FIMA). His companion in creativity is 63-year-old Sabyasachi Sen, an advocate by profession but also a magician, a ventriloquist and a photographer. He has been associated with group theatre and stage presentation for several years as well.
Perfection doesn’t come easy and the duo is no exception to this rule. Their invaluable experience is a result of four decades of hard work and observation. It all began way back in 1973, when they were fascinated by shadowgraphy pictures and the potential and power that the art form had. “During those days, we used to look at hand shadowgraphy pictures on the back of magic books, and that is how our interest in this art was born. Forty years ago, there was a power cut and we started making hand shadows on the wall in the room we were in. Being a mimic, Sabya added some sound effects and the image instantaneously came to life. Inspiration struck, and we realised the whole process, if presented audio-visually, can almost be a substitute for cinema,” says Amar. After sixteen years of practice, the duo decided to go public in 1988. In the early days, they used black and white cameras for their hand shadowgraphy programmes as digital cameras weren’t yet invented. The first hand shadowgraphy show was conducted at Outram Club, Kolkata, in 1988, with just a three-watt lamp as a prop. Since then, they have given countless performances across the globe, telling stories on a variety of topics ranging from a film on Nelson Mandela to traffic and road safety to oil conservation.
The pair has also hosted some of their videos on YouTube, which have received thousands of ‘likes’ and comments. The spectacle of the art surpasses imagination. For example, Let Calcutta Surprise You takes the viewer through several scenes from everyday life in Calcutta (or Kolkata, as it is now known) including its people, places, roads, heritage and culture and sports – the silhouette of the Calcutta skyline turns into the Howrah Bridge which moves away to show a boat floating on the Ganges, which then morphs into people on the cricket ground. The video was created to promote the capital of West Bengal as a tourist destination. Amar says, “The appeal of this form is universal, from the beginning when people are overwhelmed that so much is being done with just hand shadows, to the later parts when they’re too absorbed in the story to be able to notice it. We’ve wooed crowds of two to twenty thousand and received rave reviews all through. We even have had people who have come back for repeat performances.” Also referred to as ‘cinema in silhouette’ the fields in which hand shadowgraphy can be creatively applied are innumerable. From wildlife preservation to episodes from world literature, from road safety to sports, from historic events to educative programmes, hand shadowgraphy can be applied innovatively to create stories on almost any topic under the sun. As Amar notes, “The art form has a unique duality: on the one hand there’s a strong human connect – it’s made with hands; on the other hand, the hands don’t remain hands, because what you see is cinematic.”
It not only teaches, but also entertains and hence is a very effective source of infotainment. This art form requires dexterity and knowledge of sketching and behavioural sciences. In the early years the pair spent a lot of time in keen observation of animals at zoos, learning to mimic their facial structures and movements with their bare hands. Hours and hours went by in meticulously noting the details of shape, size and movement. Amar explains, “A sense of anatomy, drawing, cinematography, synchronization [are all part of the skills required of a hand shadowgrapher]… It requires skills from a lot of the arts, which is why I think people with diverse interests like us are attracted so much to it.” Research is also an important aspect of any art form, but hand shadowgraphy has almost no research or literature available. It is said that hand shadowgraphy originated in ancient China, approximately 1500 years ago, when an emperor of the Sung dynasty developed this art to entertain his bedridden wife. Legends talk of the origins of the art in India dating back to the times of the Ramayana. In order to spread the art and instil interest among people, Amar runs the Academy of Magical Art and Research (AMAR), which gives credit to the emerging talents and helps hone their creative skills. He believes for an individual to succeed in this art form, a blend of three elements is a must – talent, persistence and finger flexibility.
“AMAR is possibly the only school that teaches this art. But finding students with the right skill-set is tough, and our schedules often collide with the classes. We also do workshops on request. Otherwise one can watch our videos and practice by themselves,” says Amar. According to him, hand shadowgraphy, if popularised, has a bright future. Compared to yesteryears, there are better ways to reach larger audiences through social as well as traditional media. Videography has been key in revolutionising the presentation of the art form. However, challenges abound in promoting hand shadowgraphy. Amar says, “The restrictions on the art are tremendous – there are only so many shapes you can make with just hand shadows. But we have to work with them and tell a story, so it’s also physically taxing. Try holding your hands in front of yourself for 10 minutes, and you’ll see. And most important of all, the people who have not seen it refuse to accept it being anything other than a fancy children’s programme.”
Amar also feels that the art form is dying. “It’s fading away because it’s difficult, requires dedication; we’ve not found any proper disciples yet.” Amar believes that while they have done their bit to bring about awareness of the form and have “some decent visibility with the recent college fest shows, some key international shows and the AVs that have gone viral online,” it is still just two people in a swarming population of over seven billion people worldwide. He says, “It’s still just us – how much exposure can it have?”
And Amar asks a valid question – how long can just two artists uphold an art form? He adds, “The future of hand shadowgraphy currently looks bleak, with so few performers, and unless the new generation brings in some fresh talent, I’m afraid to say it may die with our generation. Visibility has been obtained, but sustainability, not yet. We are trying our best to leave a legacy in our work, books and pupils, hoping it will be picked up and that the art will get its due position.” It’s a serious art form, but you have to see it to believe it – that’s the boon and the bane of hand shadowgraphy.