She was seven or eight years old when her father lost his voice all of a sudden. Coming from a family of folk artistes performing shadow puppetry, he couldn’t stage shows anymore.
As poverty began gripping the family, he introduced her to the folk art, one of the most difficult forms, at that early age. “One day, he arranged a show and sold the tickets. And he asked me to perform. The madness began then,” Jaya Chellappan recalls.
Introduced into theru koothu after marriage, she became an exponent of both forms, performing largely in the western districts for the past fifty years. Last week, Dakshinachitra honoured her with a lifetime achievement award. “I must be the seventh or eighth generation [of folk artistes] in the family,” she says. She used to perform about 100 to 150 shows a year, which works out to somewhere between 5,000 to 7,500 shows in a lifetime totally devoted to folk art.
She has performed the roles of both men and women characters in episodes from epics such as Ramayana, Mahabaratha, the graveyard scene in Harischandra and so on. “Shadow puppetry is a nuanced art that requires great skill. It involves the task of performing the work of ten people single-handedly,” Ms. Chellappan says.
As time passed, the villagers grew more interested in theru koothu. “It was much simpler to perform as you need to enact only a single character,” she says. They usually applied powder of different colours for different characters. For instance, green would be used for Hanuman and Aravan, blue for Bhagwan and Bheem, red for Kali and Mari. But she would perform shadow puppetry with the same zeal whenever she was invited.
There were many sterling theru koothu performers back then, she recalls. Some have died and many, though alive, are largely forgotten and neglected, she says. Folk artistes like her lament that the government has not been kind to them despite repeated requests for a pension and other welfare benefits.
Ask her what kept her performing the endangered art forms even though they merely helped her eke out a living and she tells you that the only profession she knew was performing the two art forms to her heart’s content.
She is perhaps the only woman back then and now with the knowledge of the intricacies of shadow puppetry. However, she has lost mobility in her right hand and right leg due to paralysis and her voice is a bit broken. “I can’t do shadow puppetry any more,” she says.
“Despite difficulties, she still teaches shadow puppetry to those interested in the art form at our koothu palli,” says Mu. Harikrishnan, founder of Kalari Heritage and Charitable Trust that supports folk artistes like her and the art forms they lived for.