The tradition of Tholpavakoothu or shadow puppetry is vanishing in Kerala because of the paucity of well-trained artistes, say brothers K. Viswanatha Pulavar and K. Lakshmana Pulavar.
“The damage is done, you can't resurrect it.” K. Viswanatha Pulavar thus summarises the sorry state of affairs about Tholpavakoothu or shadow puppetry, the ritualistic art form of Kerala, as his younger brother K. Lakshmana Pulavar nods his head in unison.
Sons of late K.L. Krishnankutty Pulavar who was instrumental in popularising Tholpavakoothu, they belong to, perhaps, the only surviving shadow puppetry community in Kerala, based in Koonathara, near Shornur in Palakkad. Their elder brother, Ramachandran Pulavar, is also a Tholpavakoothu artiste. There is no shortage of stages, they have even adapted the art form to the present time by taking up new themes and moving out of temples to perform at events (like the inauguration of the 16th International Film Festival of Kerala) and functions such as wedding receptions.
But what is lacking is genuine, talented artistes. “It might sound ironical that even when the situation is very bad, Tholpavakoothu is still conducted in over 100 Devi temples in Thrissur, Palakkad and Malappuram districts. Koothu is considered as an offering to the deity. In fact, the number of days of performance is going up. From seven days, it has gone up to 70 or 80 days! Unfortunately, a good number of the artistes who perform are untrained,” says Viswanathan, who runs Tholpavakoothu Sangam at Koonathara.
Lakshmanan adds: “January to May is the season for Koothu and we senior artistes have bookings at different temples at the same time. So, we rarely perform together. We have to go for artistes who have to fit into the discipline expected of a Koothu artiste. Thankfully, we have a bunch of up-and-coming artistes, including our children. But the situation is not very encouraging, since this art form calls for dedication and thorough training,” says Lakshmanan.
Tholpavakoothu, believed to be a 2,000-year-old art form, has Kamba Ramayana as the text, and the language used is Tamil, along with Sanskrit and Malayalam words. The legend goes that because Bhagavathy or the Mother Goddess was fighting the demon, Darika, she couldn't watch the Rama-Ravana war. So, the Ramayana is staged for her. In most temples, the idol of the Goddess is placed on a pedestal and Thoppavakothu is staged in front of the deity.
The Koothu is performed on a separate stage called Koothumadam, and many temples have permanent Koothumadams. This 42-feet-long stage has a screen (a white cloth) behind which the puppets are held. The shadow play unfolds in the light cast by lamps lit in coconut halves. “The shlokas are written in palm leaves and we have to learn over 3,000 of them. We have to know the meanings as well,” explains Viswanathan.
Koothu artistes used to enjoy the patronage of the Kavalappara family in Shornur, who ruled the areas of Valluvanad and parts of the erstwhile Cochin state. These rulers bestowed the title of Pulavar on those who were erudite. These artistes had to have in-depth knowledge about not only the art form but also about a wide range of subjects. In fact, the Koothumadam used to be the platform for heated debates and arguments. Only those who won were allowed to step on to the Koothumadam.
The Aryankavu temple in Shornur, owned by the family, is perhaps the only temple in Kerala where all the episodes (kandam) from the Kamba Ramayana are staged in a span of 21 days. “We use nearly 200 puppets, with most of them representing different characters in different postures – sitting, standing, walking and fighting. In other places we use less than 100 puppets; you can stage a Koothu with 10 to 15 too,” says Viswanathan. When the shlokas are recited, the puppets are moved to the accompaniment of instruments such as chenda, maddalam, ezhupara, ilathalam, conch and cherukuzhal. Earlier, the performances used to start after 8 p.m. and would go on till the wee hours of the next day. Now that has been pushed to 10 p.m. or so and by 2 or 3 a.m. the artistes wind up.
“There used to be 40 artistes on the Koothumadam, which include those who sing, those who recite the dialogues, the musicians and the percussionists. A group stands for one hour, another batch steps in after that. But now you find just two people on the Koothumadam, who recite the shlokas. The number of instruments used have come down too,” rues K.L. Ramachandran, a veteran artiste, who started accompanying Krishnankutty Pulavar as a youngster, some 50 years ago. “It demands stamina to hold and keep moving the puppets. Your hands tire after a point of time, as some of them are 4 ft tall and quite heavy,” adds Ramachandran, who regularly used to hold the puppet characterising Bali.
Deer skin, used to make the puppets, has been replaced by oxen skin. Vegetable paints are still used as they last long. Since there is a shortage of hands, the Pulavar family is into puppet making as well, especially the women in the family. “My mother, Pushpalatha, makes the puppets. She has even got a Government fellowship in puppet making. They need to be maintained properly. Also, we have diversified into making items such as chains, cards, door curtains, hand fans and key chains using leather,” says Vipin, Viswanathan's son, who is now leading a children's Tholpavakoothu team.