Meet Moozhikkal Pankajakshi, who kept alive her legacy of Nokku Vidya Paava Kali. At present, her granddaughter K.S. Ranjini is the only practitioner of this kind of puppetry.

Her eyes take on a wistful look as she reminisces about her childhood. Moozhikkal Pankajakshi, the only surviving exponent of a rare form of puppetry, was in a nostalgic mood. Nokku Vidya Paava Kali is a little known and fading art form that has been Pankajakshi’s childhood playmate and lifelong companion. “My grandparents and parents used to perform this paava kali (puppetry). They used to perform in homes and temples. It was more widely practised those days. Once upon a time there were other families who practised this form of puppetry.”

Nokku Vidya Paava Kali involves balancing a stick puppet on the groove on the upper lip. The artiste looks up at the puppet and pulls the dangling string to manoeuvre it. Hence, the term ‘nokku’. By the age of 12, Pankajakshi had been initiated into the art form. She started her training by balancing baby coconuts on her upper lip.

“I had to spend several hours each day, sitting on the ground in the front yard of the house with legs stretched out, looking up and balancing the baby coconuts,” she recalls. She had to do this daily before the sun grew too hot and also in the late afternoon after it cooled down.

“There was no coercion,” she says smiling. “I was really keen to learn.” Soon she stopped her schooling. Within a few years she was accompanying her parents during their performances. Each tour comprised five or six performances. Gradually, the elder artistes passed on. The art form disappeared from other families and, over time, Pankajakshi became the sole practitioner of Nokku Vidya Paava Kali. “I am proud that neither marriage nor children put a break on my career,” she says. Her family never discouraged her, but neither did anyone take an interest in it. She travelled to several parts of Kerala and more recently within India and abroad displaying her talent.

The stick puppets have been carved out of light wood by her family members and colourful clothes hand-stitched by them. “My husband and children helped with the presentation. He and other family members accompany me with music and rhythm.”

Nokku Vidya Paava Kali stories stem from the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Social issues are also incorporated into the tales. Pankajakshi feels that this art has added meaning to her life and art. “All I wanted to do was to pass on what I learnt from my elders. But no one was interested,” she says.

Misfortune struck when Pankajakshi lost her front teeth. “I could no longer balance the puppet and had to stop performing. I thought that the art form would die with me,” she muses.

But today, the 75-year-old has a reason to smile. She has finally found an apprentice in her granddaughter, K.S. Ranjini. A class eight student in Monippally, Kottayam, Ranjini has decided to follow in her grandma’s footsteps. “She expressed interest lovingly, enthusiastically,” says Pankajakshi. She began collecting baby coconuts in order to train her. It has been four years now and the duo has not looked back. Under her grandmother’s watchful gaze, Ranjini’s brother hands her the puppets one by one, her uncle sings and she performs. Pankajakshi’s happiness knows no bounds. Her life and art have finally found continuity.