- About Us
- Support us
- Contact us
Pluralism and Performance : The Many Voices in Ramayana
Supported by Ford Foundation
Discussion with Ramachandra Pulavar, The shadow puppeteer from Kerala
Some facts about Tholpavakkuth (Shadow Puppetry) of Kerala:
It is an ancient ritualistic art form and very little is known about the exact date of its origin. It occupies a very prminent place among the ancient art forms of Kerala. This is usually presented as a 7 days, 14 days, 41 days and 79 days offering at Bhadrakali (Mother Goddess) temples of Palghat and the neighbouring areas. The theme is always Ramayana. It is believed that it is mainly performed for the Bhagavathy to watch. Bhadrakali was created to kill the demon Darika by Lord Siva out of the Kalakooda poison around his throat. Bhadrakali killed Darika in a prolonged battle. It was while Bhadrakali was engaged in the battle with Darika that Rama fought and killed Ravana and freed the imprisoned Sita. Bhadrakali was not able to witness Rama’s triumph over Ravana and the release of the sorrowing Sita from her imprisonment and agony. She was unhappy that she missed watching this event. That is why the story of Ramayana, especially the Yuddha(war) Kanda is chosen as the theme for Tolpavakoothu and performed in Bhagavathy temples. The koothu is performed in a specially built theatre called Koothambalam in the temple premises. The story of Ramayana is specially written in 21 parts partly in verse and partly in prose. It is called Adal Pattu. “Adal” means “acting” and “pattu’ means “verse”. The verse part of the Adal Pattu is known as koothu Kavitha. It included a large number of verses from Kamba Ramayana. But, some of the verses of Kambar have been modified to suit the special needs of Pava Koothu performance. The pava koothu artists have also added their own verses wherever necessary to suit certain occasions and contexts. These verses are written in palm leaves and preserved in the house of the head puppeteer. To illustrate and interpret the meaning of the verse, the performers have from time to time added stories, episodes, explanations and dialogue.. But, these are not included in the palm leaf manuscripts. They are orally taught by the teacher(usually the father to son). This is the original aspect of the rendition of this art form. Through the explanations and interpretations each performer demonstrates his originality and scholarliness. The explanations are in a language which is the mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. The performers are usually from the Vellala Chettiar or Nair castes and are known as Pulavars (musicians).
Scholars are of the opinion that Tolpavakoothu existed even before the advent of Kamba Ramayana. So, the text, it is argued was specifically written for their koothu. Later, it was influenced by Kamba Ramayana. Chinna Thambi Vadhyar is supposed to have introduced the verses of Kamba Ramayana to the koothu.
Innovations brought about by Ramachandra Pulavar and team:
Formerly the puppeteers did not consider this art form as a source of livelihood. They land of their own and farming was one of their main sources of income. They were trained in puppetry through making of puppets, the recital of verses etc when there was no farm work. They took part in the performance because of their devotion to God and their yearning for an honorable place in society. The payments from temples were nominal but they believed that their performances would bring material prosperity to them and to the viewers.
Now, the whole pattern has undergone a change. The performers are poor as they have lost their family lands. The income from the performances is meager and not enough to maintain a family. Interest in their performances has declined owing to the popularity of cinema and TV. The younger generation of traditional families of performers are not anxious to learn the form as it is neither remunerative nor glamorous. So, in general, this art form is in decline. But, the puppet theatre festival held by Sangeet Natak Academy, the International Puppets festival etc. have given a new fillip to the art form.
The art form if it given the right kind of patronage can develop puppet making as a craft and puppety as an art and educational tool.
Ramachandra Pulavar mentioned that their group has tried to change and reduce the timings of the puppet show from 8 p.m. to 8a.m. as the viewership declined. But, they have not been to put into effect. Every time they feel the presence of Kali as shakti and her insistence of having full night’s performance. So, Shakthi acts as a tremendous power even now in their performance. Shakthi is an abstract idea which enters into the minds of the people and has a tremendous hold over people and the artists.
Veenapani mentioned that while she found Ramayana problematic, its obvious connection to Shakthi or Divine Mother is what gives it strength and appeal.
The questions regarding the origin of the puppetry led to some interesting discussion. Vinay found this question of origin of an artist full of holes. He also found the discussion of double culture identity of the text stretched. When the origin of the text is Sanskrit the origin is not questioned; however, if the origin is some regional language, such as Tamil or Malayalam then the problem of origin crops up instantaneously. Language being the deciding factor when considering the origin is stretched. The question of where the artist originally came from is not important for a creative artist. History of art is a natural process and it should be based on what changes took place in the art form based on changes in reality is more of importance than changes according to migration and adaptation of a new language. Vasudevan Namboodiri, tried to emphasise on the need for historicizing the development of art forms. He felt that this sense of history will be useful in understanding the art form. Vinay felt that this trying to assess past history using present tools may give wrong notions. There is a certain point upto which we can trace history, but beyond that to make historical assumption influenced by our own subjective notions such as caste, or even the notion of history might have its own problems. Veenapani felt that the specificities of history are not what matters to a creative artist, but the flow of ideas. The artists migrate from place to place, but they settle down in a new place and creating art from the changed reality is more important. Hostory too specific for the artist. Artist need not be aware of history. They are not primarily concerned with history. Another aspect of appreciation, other than historicity enters their minds. They change according to surrounding ideas. History with regard to the origin of puppetry is more the sphere of research for academicians, documentors and researcher. Creative artist is more interested in the change in the flow of life (reality) and how it affects the flow of art. One should not confuse history with creative ideas or creative ideas with history. Both have different functions.
Ramani asked about how the puppeteer’s ancestors would feel about the creative changes made by him in his production. The narrative does not change. The characters does not change. Only the perspective and the mode of interpretation changes. Ramachandra Pulavar answered that the traditionalists do not automatically go along with the changes. But, by and by, they get used to it and accept these changes as changes required to appeal to a younger and modern audience.
Ramachandra Pulavar mentioned that they get better respect these days through their performances in villages. Villagers approach the pulavars to perform in order to solve their own problems. There are organizations like Aadishakti which invite them to perform and demonstrate and participate in discussions which gives them more visibility and thereby greater acceptance and respect.
17 March 2009
Adishakti Ramayana Festival