The main hall of Kerala Sahithya Akademi, Thrissur is a regular venue for literary meetings, film festivals and performing arts. Recently, puppets of all kinds, specially noted for their colour, distinctive movement techniques and narrative styles, descended on the stage of the Hall as part of the Kerala Puppet Festival 2013. They created a visual treat for a capacity audience. While an exhibition of puppets, books and props on and of puppetry threw light on the art form, discussions and demonstrations held as part of the festival went a long way in kindling the enthusiasm of the audience to know more about each form. Large puppets arrayed along the path leading to the Hall and tender coconut leaves fluttering in the air welcomed the audience into the Hall.
Perhaps the rarest of the shows was ‘Nokku Vidya Pavakali’ directed by the lone survivor of this art form, Moozhikkal Pankajakshi, and performed by her granddaughter K.S. Ranjini. The puppets are perched atop a pole that rests vertically on the upper lip of the puppeteer squatting on the floor. The puppets are animated with the help of strings held by the artiste. The act of balancing the puppets and animating them call for extreme concentration and practice, as the puppets are made to move in tune with the tempo of the accompanying music.
Ranjini was widely applauded as she opened with an invocation to Ganapathy by lighting an oil lamp kept at the top of the pole. Fifteen items followed in quick succession. The puppets represented mythical characters as well as those representing rural life. The fight between Bagan armed with a tree and Bhima with his mace was hair-raising. Pounding of paddy by two women picked up speed with the tempo of the rhythm. It was quite thrilling to watch a snake come alive. With its hood spread wide, meandering movements skilfully activated by the performer and music set to Punnagavarali raga, the feat was really awe-inspiring.
Nool Pavakoothu (String puppetry) in Kerala, once in vogue in Tripunithura and Nayarambalam, was fading into oblivion. G.Venu of Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda, succeeded it in reviving it a few years ago. It received a new lease of life when T.P. Kunjiraman Master of Vadakara breathed fresh life into this form of puppetry because of his association with Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) that had included puppetry in the teacher training programmes. An art teacher and amazing craftsman, Master could produce many plays using the puppets fabricated by him.
Samanwaya Pavanataka Sangham led by him staged a few scenes that demonstrated not only the agility of the puppeteers in manipulating the puppets but also the intricacies of each art form showcased by the puppets. Chenda melam included two drummers and one elathalam artiste. While the ‘veekkan’ (bass) chenda kept rhythm, the ‘uruttu’ chenda dwelt on improvisations. The gesticulations of the elathalam artiste, especially when the tempo soared, were praiseworthy. Oppana, performed with the help of five puppets, was a perfect depiction of the folk dance form, complete with clapping of hands and a coy bride. An acrobatic puppet appeared funny as very often it separated its head from the body and threw it into the air with hands and legs. The puppets performed on an improvised mini-stage. In addition to Kunjiraman Master, the team included Sajeevan, Prakasan and Sharmish Lal.
Tholpavakoothu involved a well-edited Ramayana (Kambar) by Ramachandra Pulavar. It entailed anecdotes from Rama’s journey to the forests to his coronation. The show had a professional touch thanks to his long experience of presenting them on innumerable stages within the country and abroad. He was assisted by Rajeev, Somasundaran, Lakshmanan, Rahul, Arunkumar, Manoj and Rajitha.
Organised by Krishnankutty Pulavar Memorial Tholpavakoothu centre, the festival was quintessential of artistes themselves joining hands for popularising puppetry.