Puppeteers from Maharashtra, who migrated to Kanyakumari district during the reign of Swati Tirunal, the musician-king of Travancore, are almost a lost clan today.

No amount of persuasion will make G. Paramasiva Rao talk about his art and his achievements.

“My memory fails me,” he replies tersely, though, as a practitioner of Thol Paavaikoothu, a centuries-old form of puppetry, he used to engage people, especially children, for hours, through his mimicry skills, lending voice to hundreds of characters in Ramayana and other stories.

Though a couple of centuries have elapsed since their arrival here, the families of these traditional puppeteers converse among themselves only in Marathi. However, Paramasiva Rao and his father Gopal Rao are well-versed in many verses from Kamba Ramayana.

“I stopped performing paavaikoothu long ago. My son and daughter-in-law eke out a living by performing ‘record dance’ [dancing to cine numbers],” says Mr. Rao, regretting the lack of patronage for his art in an age of satellite channels and other forms of entertainment.

These puppeteers hailing from Maharashtra, who migrated to Kanyakumari district during the reign of Swati Tirunal, the musician-king of Travancore, are almost a lost clan today.

His another son, Muthuraja, sitting nearby, explains that he has become a dancer for Kaniyan Koothu (another folk art in which the dancer is dressed as a woman) and also travelled across villages in his vehicle selling plastic material.

“Dancing for kaniyan koothu needs enormous energy, you have to dance to the tunes of the magudam, a percussion instrument, for a minimum of four hours,” said Muthuraja. Many of the paavaikoothu artistes have already switched over to dancing.

Today, none in Paramasiva Rao’s family is pursuing the art of his ancestors; his grandfather Krishna Rao and his father Gopal Rao are well-known names in paavaikoothu.

However, Muthuchandran, one of the artists, is able to sustain the art form by adapting to the requirements of modern times.

“Besides performing at temple festivals, I organise programmes for the government to convey the message of AIDS awareness and cleanliness. My shows on Swami Vivekananda are also liked by people,” said Mr. Muthuchandran.

According to Prof A.K. Perumal, who studied the art form in great detail through a UGC-funded project, the artists belonged to the Mandiga community, one of the 12 that migrated to Tamil Nadu.

“One mandiga will not marry another mandiga, but someone from the 11 other communities,” he says.

Prof. Perumal feels that since the mandigas led a nomadic life, moving from one village to another, the strict code of marriage was implemented to prevent incest and marriage between close relatives.

There are changes that have come in the art form even in the material used for making puppets. Originally, deer skin was used for making puppets for the show and when the government banned hunting of wild animals, they used goat skin because it is transparent. Earlier, natural dyes were used, but now they use modern dyes. Thousands of puppets now gather dust at Mr. Paramasiva Rao’s residence.

In the days of his grandfather, there was no separate comedy track.

Later, they introduced slapstick comedy, giving birth to characters such as utchikudumban and uzhuvaithalaian.

“Long before Goundamani and Senthil dominated the film scene, uchikudumban and uzhuvaithalaian made the children in Kanyakumari and other southern districts laugh. Such characters will soon go into oblivion,” said Prof. Perumal.

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