Lost lores on strings

Lost lores on strings

The rare and ancient art form of Paavakathakali has had an eventful journey. If not for the efforts of a few committed art lovers, this art form would have been on the brink of oblivion, writes Chethana Dinesh .

 There’s a hushed silence in the auditorium as the lights are dimmed. The air is tinged with the hue of anticipation. With only the brightly lit stage in focus, the excitement in the room is palpable. In walk five men in crisp mundu, light an oil lamp, nilavilaku, and sing sacred hymns. The stage is thus ritually sanctified, and the ambience, set. After all, it’s no ordinary performance that we are about to watch, but the centuries-old glove puppet show from Kerala, popularly known as Paavakathakali.

This ancient art form has had a journey that can only be termed long and eventful. Sometime during the 18th century, the nomadic community of Andipandaram from Andhra Pradesh migrated to Kerala through Tamil Nadu, bringing along with it the art of puppetry. However, puppetry was not their sole source of livelihood, but performing pujas in the homes of Lord Subramanya’s devotees, and guiding Palani-bound pilgrims. They practised puppetry only during their free time, travelling across villages amusing people, especially children, with their art of puppetry.


As their nimble fingers brought to life various stories from mythology, the audience was left awe-struck. Initially, it was the Tamil folk drama Aryamala that the Andipandaras performed. Later, when Kathakali gained prominence in Kerala, the Andipandaras adapted elements from Kathakali to suit their art form. Thus was born Paava–kathakali, where paava means puppet, katha means story, and kali means play.

“Our performances are based on stories from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Since these episodes are enacted through colourful puppets, children remember them well. It’s a good way of introducing children to the rich classical art heritage of our country,” says Gopal Venu, founder-chairman of Natana Kairali Research and Performing Centre for Traditional Arts, Thrissur, Kerala. 

Taking traditions forward

The staging of a Paavakathakali performance is unusual, for, it is unlike any other form of puppetry — there are no screens for puppeteers to hide behind! The puppeteers are right on the stage, visible to the audience, and so is their art of puppeteering. Paavakathakali puppets are colourful with Kathakali-style masks and embellishments. While their heads and arms are carved in wood and painted in bright colours, their body is nothing but a cloth bag concealed by a long, flowing robe. The manner in which a puppeteer manipulates his puppets is almost awe-inspiring — the head of the puppet with the index finger, while the arms with the thumb and the middle finger. So quick are the movements that the audience is left wondering if it’s only the fingers that are at play.

This art form was popular till the 1960s, when noted Paavakathakali artiste Chamu Pandaram travelled across villages with his troupe to stage performances. However, there was no guarantee for its future. Fortunately for the connoisseurs of traditional art forms, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who strove for the revival of several traditional art forms of India, chanced upon Paavakathakali puppets on display at a museum in Thrissur. Piqued by curiosity about the art form, and enthused to revive it, she entrusted Gopal Venu with the task of digging Paavakathakali’s roots and documenting the art form as a positive step towards reviving it.

So, in 1972, Gopal Venu filmed the Paavakathakali of Chamu Pandaram in 16 mm film, making it the only documentation of Paavakathakali from that period. Again, in 1980, following Kamaladevi’s suggestion, Gopal Venu undertook an intensive research programme on this art form and collected invaluable information about it. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are able to appreciate this traditional glove puppetry art form of Kerala, to this day, only because of Gopal Venu’s efforts.

“Since Paavakathakali owes many of its salient features to Kathakali, the musical instruments too are the same as in Kathakali — chenda, changila, Ilathalam and shankha. And since Paavakathakali is almost similar to Kathakali, people will be able to relate to it better,” says Gopal Venu, who has also penned several articles and monographs on puppetry including Puppetry and Lesser Known Dance Traditions of Kerala.

Right now, there is only a six-member group of Paavakathakali practitioners comprising K V Ramakrishnan and K C Ramakrishnan (from the traditional Andipandaram family), K Srinivasan, V Thankappan, Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan and Ravi Gopalan Nair. “Another team of young artistes will be readied to take this art form forward,” says 50-year-old Srinivasan, who has been practising this art form for almost 35 years now.

Keeping art alive

Srinivasan’s tryst with Paavakathakali was “quite accidental”. “Being a great admirer of Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Kummattikali, I once listened to a speech at the School of Drama in Thrissur that underlined the need to preserve this art form as it was on the verge of extinction. Inspired, I requested Gopal Venu to train me in this art form, and here I am, almost 35 years old into it,” he says, proudly.

Back then, when he started training in Paavakathakali, most of the puppets they had were worn out and it was highly challenging to get new ones made. “Fortunately for us, Kathakali artiste and costume designer Thottassery Namboodiripad of Chengannur studied the available puppets carefully and designed all the puppets for us. Those are the very same puppets we use to this day. Ravi Gopalan Nair is one of the few people who had the good fortune of learning the art of puppet making from Namboodiripad,” he says.

It is heartening to note that owing to the efforts of a committed few, today, Paavakathakali has an audience both at home and abroad, having already staged performances in 29 countries. “Paavak-athakali is regarded almost equal to Chinese puppetry,” shares an elated Srinivasan.

We, the Bangalore audience, have the Southern Regional Centre of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) to thank for making available the rare opportunity of enjoying this art form in our home town. IGNCA, in its effort to popularise this art form, has made a documentary film on Paavakathakali, and has also conducted festivals and workshops in villages the art form flourished in the 60s.

The performances I am about to witness are incidents from Mahabharata — ‘Duryodhana Vadham’ and ‘Kalyana Sougandhikam’. The show is about to begin. I surrender myself to the show...

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