Shadow leather puppet play facing near death

A leather puppet show. File Photo: Ch. Vijaya Bhaskar  

Time constraints and pace of modern life have led to the near death of ‘Tolpavakoothu’, a slow-moving leather puppet shadow play of the Ramayana, which has enthralled generations of Keralites.

“Tolpavakoothu has lost audiences because it tells the story over several days and the performance is held only at koothumadams (exclusive halls built for the show),” M Lakshamana Pulavar, a leading artiste of the fading performing art, told PTI.

He also felt that the slew of television programmes and cinema had to a certain extent led to lack of patronage of this art.

Tolpavakoothu, with its origins in Bhagavati temples in Palakkad district, is a peculiar ritualistic art form worshipped by the people of Kerala as the mother goddess. The play is performed from January to May in front of Bhagavati temple.

The Tolpavakoothu traditionally enacts Kamba Ramayana (a Tamil epic written by Kamban in the 12th century-based on Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit) describing King Rama’s life using a dialect of Tamil, with an admixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam.

The duration of the play ranges from 16 to 41 days. It is also believed that the goddess used to remain awake throughout the night and listen to the ‘koothu’.

The story is told using over 75 intrinsically designed puppets made out of deer or buffalo skin. Musical instruments like ‘ilathaalam’, ‘sankh’ and ‘chenda’ are used during the enactment, as also the spoken word.

The puppets are moved by puppeteers behind a white screen against a background of 21 wick lamps. Shadows falling on the screen from behind create the illusion of a dynamic play.

Words delivered in a stylised way supply the dialogues and the narration.

Scenes like Lord Rama breaking the bow before marrying Sita, Hanuman carrying Rishabadri with Mritha sanjeevani medicinal plants, fights between Bali and his brother Sugriva and Ram-Ravana are depicted with precision.

C Viswanathan Nair, renowned agriculturist and a prominent personality of Pattancherry village bordering Tamil Nadu, said interest in the past was such that youngsters used to ensure in advance that they got the best places in the Koothumadams to see the play.

Fifty two year old Lakshmana Pulavar, who learnt the art from his uncle at age 10 and has been giving performances for the last 42 years, says something needs to be done to rekindle interest among people to the centuries old art.

“The younger generation in this field are not interested in carrying on this profession, though there are still some who choose to stay on,” he said.

On his part, Lakshmana has for the last 10 years been running an institute ‘Kannan Tholpava Koothu Kala Centre’ at Koonanthara, to train children who are interested in the art.

Tolpavakoothu literally comes to life in the sleepy hamlet of Pattanchery in April, with many small and big temple festivals culminating in the koothu festival in the first week of May.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 9:20:04 AM |

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