The man behind the shadows

A. Selvaraja, gives a demonstration of the art form to his fellow villagers in Mambakkam Kolathur, 50 KM away from Chennai city. Photo: Shaju John   | Photo Credit: Shaju John

We must congratulate the team.” Saying so, we walk towards the screen at the end of the puppet show at DakshinaChitra. Perhaps there are four of them? The one who mimicked Ravanan’s voice, especially, was excellent. A man in a crinkled shirt and dhoti steps out to greet us from the backstage. What about the others? “There’s no one else,” he says. The whole thing was a one-man show. In fact, the man behind it, A. Selvaraja, has literally been running the show for the thol paavai koothu form of puppetry in Tamil Nadu by himself for several decades.

There’s a gentle breeze as we walk with the 66-year-old by a shocking-green paddy field in his village of Mambakkam Kolathur, about 50 km from Chennai. He gives us a demonstration of his art form using the colourful leather puppets he’s inherited. “My ancestors would’ve been disappointed if they saw me now,” he chuckles. “We’re not supposed to show the puppets to anyone. This is to retain the element of surprise at the show.”

Seated by bundles of leather puppets, chickens clucking in the background, he draws us into his world of bommalattam...

I was born in Vembi village, Arcot, into a family of puppeteers. My periappa R. Sellappa initiated me into this art form. My ancestors are said to have been puppeteers at the courts of the Serfoji kings of Thanjavur. When the British took over, they were left to fend for themselves. They travelled from one village to another, pitching tents and performing for the locals. Gradually, this picked up, and the events became ticketed, similar to a travelling circus.

Remuneration was in the form of grains; the artistes were offered sacks of millets and rice. Sometimes, if a village head was pleased with the puppeteers, he offered them a cow and a calf to take along when the team set out for the next camp. They mostly performed stories from the Ramayana, and the shows went on from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

With 15 members in a team, each had his/her role: there were singers, musicians, the main artistes, those who handled the lights and the backstage settings... paavai vilakku (oil lamps) were used as backlights and a booth was set up around the main puppeteers using black cloth, so that no one caught sight of what was going on behind the screen.

They stayed on for several weeks in the villages, and, during this time, friendships were formed. There were often tears as they bid goodbye and moved on. But, as the years rolled by, the team became bigger, and the cattle gifted to them multiplied. The elders decided to divide the group: they allotted puppets and cattle to each family and assigned them districts to perform in. And so, they separated and went their ways.

We saw good times — our people bought land and cultivated their own food. All of this disappeared when television came. It wiped us out. We were initially in awe of the figures that moved behind the television screen. But then, they were just images from a faraway land. It was saddening that our audience preferred them to our puppets.

The puppeteers were forced to look for other ways to make a living. From 10, my team reduced to five. One fine day, I had no one else to perform with me. There were nights when, on an empty stomach, I stared at the ceiling wondering what to do. I started approaching schools. I developed stories with morals for children. There was a phase when I travelled across the State with an NGO to create awareness about HIV.

I’ve travelled to places such as Germany and Australia to train people and perform, and even had a short stint in cinema. You can see me with my puppets in the song ‘Mukundha Mukundha’ in Kamal Haasan’s Dasavathaaram. Presently, I perform at DakshinaChitra during the weekends and at weddings and other events.

Every puppeteer from my lineage has given up the art form. I can count just five of us in Tamil Nadu. But I’m unable to give up on this. This is my god; it feeds me. My son doesn’t show interest in learning puppetry. So, this will end with me. Sometimes, when I look at my puppets — some of them were made in the 1930s by my uncle — I wonder what will happen to them after I’m gone. I ask my family to keep them in a museum and tell the world: ‘Look, there lived a man who told stories using these. They are called puppets’.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 8:26:54 PM |

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