Tholpavakoothu emerges from the shadows

The unique Tholpavakoothu style of puppetry t o narrate Kamba Ramayanam using leather puppets, terracotta lamps or coconut halves to allow the shadow to fall on the screen enthralls Uma Kannan

IMAGERY Kerala puppetry

The vibrant shadows of leather puppets told the story of Sita Kalyanam to the enchanted audience. The story was unfolded in front of them on the white screen with perfection and skill that Pulavars are known for.

The lead puppeteer is known as Pulavar, who is a master of several languages including Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam.

Each Pulavar is required to know Kamba Ramayanam, composed in Tamil in the 12th century. Behind the white screen, leather puppets are held up and terracotta lamps or coconut halves are placed behind the puppets causing the shadow to fall on the screen. The puppets are painted in vegetal colours. Thol (leather), Pava (puppet) and Koothu (play). “Tholpavakoothu means staging of plays with leather puppets,” says Vipin Viswanatha Pulavar, who has a Master’s degree in English and Social Work. Vipin worked with NATO and Juvenile Justice Board before joining his father K Viswanatha Pulavar at Tholpavakoothu Sangam, Palakkad, Kerala.

Pulling strings

As an artiste, Vipin is quite happy holding puppets and staging shows. “My father and grandfather wished to see me as an artiste and so I decided to make my passion and profession the same,” says the 27-year-old artiste. Now, he is travelling across the world and is also actively involved in conducting various workshops to enlighten people on this art form. “When people ask me how long our families are involved in this art form and when I reply ‘I am a 15th generation practitioner,’ they are amazed. We will continue performing Tholpavakoothu,” Vipin says, adding, in the past there were 30 families doing shadow puppetry, but now only four families, including his, are continuing this art form. “If we, the younger generation, don’t carry forward this art, it will die,” says Vipin, looking at his father K Viswanatha Pulavar, the winner of Kerala State Award.

According to Viswanatha Pulavar, Chinnathambi Pulavar, who lived 2,000 years ago, is believed to be the first prominent performer of Tholpavakoothu. As a child, Viswanatha had accompanied his father Krishnankutty Pulavar to performances in countries such as Sweden, Germany, Greece, Singapore, Spain, Ireland, France, Japan, and Indonesia, among others. The puppetry group has travelled to more than 35 countries and received many honours. 

The making

Tholpavakoothu puppets are made of deer skin. The figures are drawn on the skin, cut out and embellished with dots, lines and holes. When the skin is completely dehumidified, the hair on it is removed by scraping the surface with a sharp-edged piece of bamboo. Then the puppet figure is drawn clearly on it and cut out with a fine chisel. The eyes, nose and lips are also drawn on the puppet and cut out,” Viswanatha explains, adding, “Ornaments and clothes are drawn by drilling different kinds of holes in the skin for which special pointed chisels are used.”

“Puppets are painted with different colours made by boiling wood from different trees. Once the puppets are ready, flexible hands made of deer skins are attached to them. A bamboo stick is fixed vertically along the puppet, and the movement of the puppets is controlled according to the circumstances,” explains the puppeteer. Puppets are made in different postures — standing, fighting, sitting and lying — to conduct the play based on Kamba Ramayana.

Usually, the performance begins at night and lasts till dawn. Today, to attract younger generations, Tholpavakoothu is adopting more contemporary stories. “Stories such as Sreekrishna Avatharam, Buddha Upadesham, Narasimha Avatharam, as also stories based on topics such as anti-ragging and deforestation,” says Vipin.

Tholpavakoothu Sangam also makes use of social media to promote its workshops and shows. “Apart from traditional performances in temples from 10 pm to 5 am, we also give special performances, thus taking this art form to outer venues, where the duration of the show is 30 minutes to 1 hour,” he says. Both Vipin and Viswanatha say the government needs to support puppetry so that its practitioners don’t give up the art form.

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