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Friday Review » Theatre

Updated: July 1, 2010 20:15 IST

In the shadow of puppets

G.S. Paul
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Indonesian puppest on display at the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. Photo: K.K. Najeeb
The Hindu
Indonesian puppest on display at the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. Photo: K.K. Najeeb

An incredible variety of puppets were on display at the ‘Koothumadam’ exhibition at the Kerala Lalitakala Akademi, Thrissur.

Puppets of all genres from different cultures crowded the gallery at the Kerala Lalitakala Akademi's three-week-long ‘Koothumadam’ puppetry exhibition in Thrissur. Upon entering the gallery, each visitor was greeted by 18 puppets from Indonesia that dotted the staircase. Interestingly, almost all of them represented the pantheon of Hindu gods. Profuse ornamentation and flamboyant costumes appeared the demarcating features of these puppets and ostentatious headgear was a common feature in all of them. The first one that welcomed visitors was Ganesha. As you continued up the staircase, Hanuman, Krishna, Ravana, Garuda, Sita et al gazed at you with highly exaggerated expressions. Among them was Cepot, a comedian armed with a knife.

Secular paradigms

Said Sathyapal, secretary of the Akademi: “These puppets are traditionally made by Muslim families. So they are the paradigms of the strong secular bonds of the people of Indonesia.” He added that the Indonesian puppets were procured by the Akademi from Astri, an Indonesian.

These two-feet-tall puppets have their head fixed on a central rod. Their slender hands can be manipulated with rods that are connected to them. The rod-puppets, themselves, are known as ‘Wayang Golek.' The dalang (the puppet master), typically makes use of scores of these puppets in a show that lasts all night. Stories from Indian, Arabian and Indonesian mythology are mainly presented in these shows.

There were also quite a few shadow puppets – ‘Wayang Kulit' – on display. These highly decorated puppets are also made of leather and are manipulated on the same lines as Indian shadow puppets. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed the ‘Wayang Kulit' as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The bulk of the puppets that were on display belonged to the Koonathara family of traditional puppeteers. The bewitching display of innumerable shadow puppets and their captivating illumination was a real treat to the eye. The credit goes to Ramachandran Pulavar, the master puppeteer of the family. Ramachandran had also put up a Koothumadam (the conventional puppet theatre in temples where Tolpavakkoothu is traditionally performed). It is from this that the title of the exhibition itself was derived.

The collection of the puppets of the Koonathara family is so large that they can run eight shows simultaneously. Around 250 of those that were exhibited here covered a wide spectrum in terms of characters, dimensions and make. Typical mythical characters apart, quite a few of them represented those created by Pulavar for presenting secular themes such as Gandhiji's life, the Panchantanthra stories, religious harmony, anti-ragging and so on. He also displayed a leather puppet made by one of his students, Clarisse Toulan from France.

A globe-trotting puppeteer, Pulavar has a wide collection of puppets from different countries. The rod puppets from Russia and a few from China belong to this treasure. Also on display were shadow puppets from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Among other varieties of puppets were five glove puppets of ‘Pava Kathakali' from Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda. Two rare ‘Nokku kuthi' puppets – one of Hanuman and another of a woman pounding paddy– from the collections of Natanakairali, were another visual treat.


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