How Tholpavakoothu emerged out of the shadows

Ramachandra Pulavar’s innovative ideas have brought international recognition to Tholpavakoothu, the traditional puppetry of Kerala

Updated - February 18, 2021 05:10 pm IST

Published - February 18, 2021 04:42 pm IST

K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar

K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar

For the Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppetry) exponent K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar, this season of plays had an auspicious start — he has been awarded the Padma Shri. He is the first folk artiste from Kerala to be selected for this honour .

Ramachandra, son of the late guru Krishnankutty Pulavar, belongs to the 13th generation in a family of puppeteers. The Tholpavakoothu artistes live in village Koonathara, along the Shoranur-Ottappalam Road. In fact a major attraction of this village is the ‘Krishnankutty Pulavar Memorial Tholpavakoothu & Puppet Centre.’ .

Annual fare

Performed in the Bhadrakali temples, from January to June every year, the art form is believed to be more than 350 years old. The performance is staged in specially built koothumadams ( play house ) facing the temple. Artistically made puppets cast their shadows on the cloth screen ( Ayapudava ) in the koothumadam. Behind the screen, de-husked coconuts broken into two halves are placed in a row on a long plank, vilakkumadam . They contain coconut oil and the cotton wicks kept in them shed light on the screen. The puppets are held upright with a thin bamboo rod fixed vertically on their back. As the puppeteer moves them against the light, shadows are cast on the screen.

The Tholpavakoothu artistes behind the screen

The Tholpavakoothu artistes behind the screen

The play staged is Kamba Ramayanam, the verses ( adal pattu ) of which are rendered by the leader of the troupe (pulavar) in peculiar cadences. The rest of the team responds with ‘Aa’ in chorus. Around 200 puppets are needed for the entire 21-day play — from Sri Rama Avataram (birth) to Sri Rama Pattabishekam (coronation). According to the scene, each puppet is prepared for different movement or posture: sitting, walking and fighting. Interestingly, special puppets such as of animals, trees, birds, lakes and mountains are created to represent nature. Dexterity of the puppeteers make these performances realistic.

The credit for bringing the art out of the temple precincts goes to Krishnankutty Pulavar. He took them to cultural organisations, educational institutions and even puppet festivals across the world. Ramachandra was initiated into the art form at age six by his father . He learnt the nuances by participating in the shows staged by his father. These opportunities gave him the much-needed exposure and also the wherewithal to preserve and popularise the art form.

An all-women team

Ramachandra established an institution in his father’s name that trains artistes in puppet making. “Tradition for me also means innovation,” says Ramachandra, who admits female students too. A trained female artiste was first included in his team. Recently, he put together an all-women team for a performance. He feels gender discrimination in arts is reprehensible. The institution has a museum that displays 40 puppets, including a 250-year-old, collected from across the world.

Ramachandra has also been presenting new plays such as ‘Duryodhana Vadham’ (Mahabharata), ‘Panchatantra,’ ‘Mahatma Gandhi,’ ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Ayyappa Charitam’ to popularise Tholpavakoothu. They have been well received by audiences around the world.

The National Shadow Theatre Festival organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi, Bengaluru, in 1978 gave Tholpavakoothu recognition at the national level. Thereafter, it was selected for the International Festival of Puppet Theatres of Asian Countries in Soviet Union in 1979. G. Venu, who contributed immensely for the revival of the art form, led the team in 1987 to Indian Manifestation in Sweden. The team was later invited to International Puppet Festival held under the leadership of renowned artiste, Michael Meschke, in Hydra, Greece.

Ramachandra was invited by CCRT, Delhi, to train teachers since the art form is an effective tool in education. He was honoured by the Kerala Folklore Akademi in 2012, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in 2013 and Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2015. A regular participant in the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), Ramachandra collaborated with well-known filmmaker G. Aravindan to create the festival logo, which is a Tholpavakoothu puppet.

The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.

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