Stories are aplenty in Choti Haldwani. We only had to look.

The village in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand was built in 1915 by hunter-conservationist-writer Jim Corbett. He bought 221 acres of land in the Kumaon foothills, and settled about 40 families by building homes, designing irrigation and raising a wall around the village to keep wild animals out. In 1947, handing the village over to his tenants, he left for Kenya, where he spent his last years.

About 20 kilometres from Corbett National Park, Choti Haldwani has about 350 documented species of birds. They swing and glide between the trees and bushes, their birdcall calibrated with the hours of daylight. The orderliness almost masks the uncertainty that lurks across the river flanking the village’s western wall. Every day, the villagers cross into the forest inhabited by elephants and leopards to gather firewood and other forest produce.

In the lead-in to the village’s centenary celebrations a few days ago, the Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti, with funding from the Corbett Tiger Reserve, invited puppeteers Anurupa Roy and Asha of Delhi’s Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust to help the villagers prepare a shadow puppet play. I arrived in Choti Haldwani as writer-on-board with Anurupa and Asha on December 15.

Almost as soon as we arrived, the first story was identified. In his book Jungle Lore, Jim Corbett writes about a superstitious belief in the churail in the villages along the Himalayan foothills. The most feared of all evil spirits, the churail appears in female form and lures the unsuspecting to their doom.

He writes that there is a bird called the churail, too, whose arresting call he has heard only thrice in all his years in the forests of Kumaon, and which he has seen but once. One spring evening, peering through his binoculars, Corbett viewed the bird sitting on a haldu tree just outside his bungalow. He thought he might shoot it down so he could observe it better, but his sister stopped him. If you miss, she cautioned, the villagers will think it is really a witch that’s shape-shifted into a bird.

This story, our local hosts agreed, would set the mood of the theatrical piece – it takes place in the village but harks to the secrets of the forest.

On day one then, a meeting was called with the women’s cooperative of Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti. Anurupa told them they would need to commit at least four hours every day to the shadow puppet play. They explained politely and firmly that they had farms, children, household work and livestock to tend. Their school- and college-going kids might work on the play instead, in the afternoons.

This meeting, and subsequent script and puppetry practice sessions (with their children) were held at Moti House, a stone house built by Jim Corbett for his khas or Man Friday. The family of Moti Singh’s grandson still lives here, works the land and maintains the sturdy old house. The women’s co-operative, having declined our invitation, continued to practise the Jhoda, their traditional folk dance, beneath the mango tree in Moti House’s yard, in preparation for the centenary celebration.

Although the women would not do puppetry, their interest was piqued when the Katkatha puppeteers demonstrated basic shadow work. Using an overhead projector they had brought from Delhi, they brought to life, under light and lens, the shadows of trees, villages, townscapes and people cut out of paper. The women shared their own stories.

A middle-aged woman, known to all as Nirmala ki mummy (Nirmala’s mother), spoke about her encounter a decade ago with a churail in the forest. It flung her to the ground and broke her back, she said. While in its possession, she had reached out and grabbed the throat of the Jagariya or shaman who came to exorcise her. Other women, giggling uncontrollably, mimed encounters with bears and elephants on their forays into the forest for firewood. The jungle’s secrets, we found, make their way quite easily to the village square.

The churail encounter story found its way into the script, as did a couple of other tiger encounter stories from Corbett’s books, My India and Temple Tiger. Twenty-four young people from Choti Haldwani and surrounding villages gathered the next day in the Moti House yard after school and college. They began to work out how to interweave the stories, write the dialogues, and how to stage it all through shadows.

The afternoons were cold, yet sunny, the green of trees and fields startling. The light would go down by 5pm, giving way to biting cold. A group worked on script, one began drawing and cutting shapes out of ivory paper, of Corbett’s house, tigers large and small, trees and the village landscape. Five children were selected to play characters behind the white screen, and two narrators chosen. Five quiet, alert young women opted to manipulate the paper puppets that would bring the screen to life. The whole show would depend on their dexterity and timing.

“It is the first time shadow puppetry is being done in Uttarakhand,” enthused heritage interpreter Anjali Bharthari, who helped the locals see the potential that lay in heritage and eco-tourism. “In a place where stories abound and people’s afternoons are free, what could be better than creating a shadow puppet play.”

A six-by-eight-foot wooden frame and a white cloth to stretch onto it were readied by the local carpenter and tailor. Lastly, a few pieces of music were edited out by one of the young women. Eight children who'd arrive at 3pm daily for a separate story-making basics workshop with me (since everyone could not be in the main show), rehearsed a song about the jungle that brims with secrets at their doorstep, for the conclusion of the play.

Wishing the team luck and nursing some trepidation of our own, the puppeteers and I left Choti Haldwani for our respective cities four days before the centenary performance.

Jungle ke Rehesya opened on December 26 as night descended before an audience of 300, including officials from the Corbett National Park and actor Tom Alter, who was there to read from Corbett’s work. The puppeteers, we heard, made not a single mistake.

“I’ve never had such a great show,” Mukesh Nainwal, a local actor, the narrator and quasi-director of the show, told me on the phone from Kaladhungi. “The only problem was that people in the audience kept coming to peep behind our six-by-eight foot screen, to figure out how exactly we were creating the shadows... the magic.”