On Tholapavakoothu - the shadow puppetry of Kerala

In India, shadow puppetry is known by different names regionally, like ‘tholu bommalata’ in Andhra Pradesh, ‘togalu gombeyaata’ in Karnataka, ‘charma bahuli natya’ in Maharashtra, the ‘ravanachhaya’ in Odisha, ‘tholapavakoothu’ in Kerala and ‘Thol bommalata’ in Tamilnadu. As a very old traditional art form, more than 20 countries in the world are known to have shadow puppeteers.

The Indian Institute of Science and SPICMACAY together, recently presented ‘Tholapavakoothu’ (Shadow Puppetry show) at the Students Amenities Centre, Gymkhana campus, IISc. The main artist was Kalashri Ramachandra Pulavar, a Sangeet Nataka Academy award winner who was accompanied by artists, Rajeev Pulavar, S.Laxman, Krishnadas and Manoj.

After a brief introduction about their presentation for the day, the show began with the auspicious conch blowing and playing of few traditional instruments and invocatory slokams on Ganesha and Saraswati, following which lamps were lit behind the screen auguring the show.

Usually, any Indian dance form or any art form, often foreground their art on the narratives of famous epics and legendary figures. Tamil epic Kamba Ramayana is a popular one for shadow puppetry and the group showcased the episodes of Lord Rama’s exile, Sita’s abduction, Vali Sugriva’s fight, fight between Rama and Ravana and finally Rama’s coronation. The narration was in English, considering the place and the audience, or else the language usually will be a dialect of Tamil, an admixture of Sanskrit, Malayalam words.

On Tholapavakoothu - the shadow puppetry of Kerala

This art form sounds simple on hearing, but the technique and interpretation of stories/ episodes, communicating and transferring the concepts do not seem easy. Perfect coordination, practice and dexterity is required to move and manipulate the puppets. Rama’s pursuit to catch the golden deer, ten-headed Ravana’s appearance, Jatayu’s valiant effort to save Sita from Ravana, jubilant dance in Lanka, the realistic fight scene between Vali and Sugriva, Indrajith’s magic tricks, and the final battle ensuing Rama’s success and his coronation – every frame looked amazingly real and the young and old in the audience were left in awe and admiration for the deft presentation of story through narration and action of puppets.

Pulavar is the honorable title that is given to a scholar-cum-performer who has extensive knowledge of Tholapavakoothu - the shadow puppetry of Kerala.

As the current directors of Krishnan Kutty Pulavar Memorial Tholpavakoothu and Puppet Centre, Palakkad, K.K Ramachandra Pulavar and his son Rajeev Pulavar, are recipients of many prestigious awards and recognitions nationally and internationally. Every year from the month of December to June, their troupe performs nearly 500 shows in 40 temples and in places here and abroad.

Excerpts from the interview:

Please tell us about you and your family of Pulavars.

I belong to 11th generation of Pulavar community, which is solely responsible for taking care and preserving the unique art of shadow puppetry in Kerala. Our group hails from Shoranur, Palakkad District. I got trained from my childhood days itself. My father used to teach us children, we were given rigorous training in learning the narrations and puppet making, and we were equipped with the knowledge to keep this art form going. This art form was earlier reserved to be showcased within the vicinity of temples but with the enduring efforts of my father, guru Krishnan Kutty Pulavar, this shadow puppetry was introduced to the outer world and is now very popular among the foreigners too.

Can you give more details about ‘Tholapavakoothu?

For centuries, puppetry is considered as an art form of theatre that involves manipulation of puppets as animate objects that often resemble a human or animal figure, where the puppeteer handles these puppets and enacts a story. Puppetry has remained one of the favorite art forms for the majority of states in India, and every state has its own unique way of showcasing it. But with shadow puppetry, the case is different. This is a finest art form of this country - Tholapavakoothu or shadow puppet play, is a fine example of the integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures. In Malayalam, Thol means leather, pava means doll and koothu the play. Though the origin of this ritualistic art form is not known exactly, some believe it to be as old as 1200 years. Tholapavakoothu, is an ancient ritualistic art form dedicated to Bhagavati, the mother goddess, and preserved as a family tradition by the Pulavars. This shadow puppetry is performed using the mythological figures along with the use of fire and lighting of lamps behind the screen. Typically, Tholapavakoothu is presented for 7, 14 or 41 days as an offering at temples dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali.

On Tholapavakoothu - the shadow puppetry of Kerala

It is believed that Goddess Bhadrakali was busy killing Demon Dharika and could not watch the triumph of Lord Rama over the demon king Ravana and the subsequent release of Sita. Since the goddess missed that epic battle between Rama and Ravana, the story of Ramayana was staged in the form of Tholapavakoothu, especially Yudha Kanda, the chapter dealing with the war. The story of Ramayana is composed for Tholpavakoothu in 21 parts, which are presented over 21 nights. The art form is usually staged late in the evening. As per the local belief, this ritual art form is watched by the goddess, who in turn blesses the community. About 180 puppets are needed for a full performance. Hence, the story of Ramayana, forms an integral part of this art form.

Using flat cut-out figures that are held between a source of light and a transparent screen, the puppets are moved skillfully along the source of light to make the figures appear to be live and animated that can do everything from dancing, walking, fighting, talking, nodding etc. The screen is illuminated by 21 lamps made out of coconuts cut into half, filled with coconut oil and cotton wicks and these lamps are placed in equidistance from each other on the vilakku madam (wooden beam) behind the screen. The traditional musical instruments that are generally used are chenda, maddalam, conch,ezhupara, ilathalam etc. They will set the mood for the story narration and its continuity.

The important qualification for a Tholapavakoothu artist is to have scholarship in our epics and be well versed in Puranas and Shastras and be competent enough to speak fluently on the topic. To become a puppetry artist, one must study for 15 years under a scholar. In the earlier times, women never participated in this shadow puppetry show but with time they have started to involve in this art form actively.

How do you make these puppets?

Tholapavakoothu puppets are made of deer skin because they are allowed in temples. The figures are drawn on the skin, cut and embellished with dots, lines and holes. The arms of the puppets are made movable. The expression on the faces of the puppets are decided after considering what they would be enacting. Our Centre is famous for creating and coloring the puppets. I myself make around three hundred puppets a year.

Is shadow puppetry a struggling art form, if yes, how to revive it?

Irony is while the younger generation in India is not realising its worth, it has become an important topic of research for many foreign universities. Professors and students from California University, often visit India to learn in- depth about Tholapavakoothu. This subject has lot of aspects for research, which helps us to improvise and enrich our cultural and social traditions too.

To help this art form sustain, the support and encouragement of the Government and Cultural organizations are highly essential. I have authored two books titled ‘Shadow puppet in Kerala (published by NFSC ), ‘ Tholapavakoothu’ ( published by Kerala Basha Institute ), which throw light on this artform and help in its propagation.

My son Rajeev holds the light of Tholapavakoothu in his hands now and is taking it further. He is the recipient of Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from Sangeet Natak Academy among few others. He has initiated new themes and contemporary ideas that appeal to the youth and we are not just confined to temple premises but perform in many colleges and other venues. We are doing our bit and it is up to the society to take this art form to a higher level of recognition and appreciation it deserves.

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Printable version | Oct 10, 2021 6:17:22 PM |

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