Kerala Puppetry _ Q & A

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:

Ramachandra Pulavar_01It 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).

Tholppaavakkoothu_01Scholars 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.

Pulavars believe that the Koothu is performed to bless the villagers with life (Ayus), Health(Aarogyam), wealth (Sampath) and abundance (Samridhi).
The puppets are made out of deer skin because it is considered to have pure and sacred properties. After the skin is cleaned and dried tha outline of the puppet is drawn on it. Then the puppets are shaped through careful chiseling. As the black shadow should  fall on the screen, the natural thickness  of the deer skin is retained. The skin is carefully cut to ensure that the shapes, facial expressions and decorations of the puppets are actually duplicated in their shadows. The holes are punched in the leather for the light to pass. About a dozen chisels of different shapes and sizes are used for this delicate job. A bamboo spill is fixed vertically along the whole length of the puppet right in its centre. This is done to prevent the leather from wilting or swaying on the sides.. About 130 puppets are used for the entire presentation of Ramayana. To help identify the puppets and to make them attractive they are painted in artistic colours. The bark of the tree Kasav and certain kinds of leaves are used to make these colours. Each important character in the story is represented by puppets in three different postures – sitting, walking and fighting. The women puppets are shown in dance postures also. Usually only one hand of the puppets is fixed in such a manner that it can be moved and it has both the moveable joints  to be found in the human limb. There is a close resemblance between the puppets and the figures in mural paintings and sculptures of ancient temples of Kerala. Needless to say that these puppets are not made in the realistic mode but in an abstract, highly stylized mode. The main mudra (gesture) of the puppets is the sathwika mudra with a message to people “Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu”.  It is a gesture of peace and protections. Normally Sri Rama is in walking posture, 79 cm long and 46 cm broad. The dimensions of Ravana in fighting posture is 80 cm in length and 68 cam in the breadth. The puppets are made by the puppeteers themselves and should they wish they can make this puppetry making into a commercial and touristic vernture.

Innovations brought about by Ramachandra Pulavar and team:

  1. Humorous scenes are added through the character of Kodakkaran (Vidushaka).
  2. In the Vali – Sugriva battle, the fight is shown as a game or play or pitting the strengths against one another and not a violent war scene. Rama is in this scene a mere spectator.
  3. Classical singing and inclusion of Malayalam songs and folk songs are introduced. EG: “Veera Virata Kumara Vibho(a kummi song)
  4.  Number of days performed is reduced as the occasion demands.


Ramachandra Pulavar & team _ 01Formerly 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

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