FRIDAY REVIEW The Hindu, 01-05-09
Play with puppets
A small crowd of discerning art lovers waited expectantly for the leather puppet show, Tholpavakoothu to begin. However, instead of the usual ‘Kootu madam’ or the play house in the precincts of a Bhagawathy temple where it is normally conducted, the play was staged at the newly restored David Hall, Fort Kochi. The keen audience, eager to learn and know, were seated under a starry sky, beside a mango-laden tree, a cool sea breeze gently adding to this dramatic environ. The ambassador to The Netherlands, Bob Hiensch was one of the ardent onlookers. A palpable excitement that filled the dark night was washed by the dim glow from the 21 oil lamps that lay behind a beam.
A white screen, which formed the top part of the stage, symbolised heaven. Hell was represented by the dark area below the white screen. Invoking the Mother Goddess, Tholpavakoothu guru K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar, the head of this puppeteer family, explained this ancient art form. But only a bit. The drama unfolded on screen, the action and the narration, the songs and the conversations, satire, wit and war all taking the audience through an abridged version of the epic Ramayana. The conclusion of the show left the audience spellbound. Ramchandra Pulavar appeared before the screen to the sounds of applause nd a standing ovation to take the questions of the audience…
Traditionally, we stage the Ramayana. It is generally the Kamba Ramayana. The language used is a mix of Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam.
The making of the puppets
Puppets were originally made from deer skin but now we use goat skin as there is a ban on the former. They are handmade by members of the puppeteer’s family. The leather is generally bought from Hyderabad and Pune. Families into this art
As it is a traditional, ritualistic art there are only a few families into this. My family is the Kavalapara family from Shornur. Krishnakutty Pulavar, my father, was one of the doyens of this art form. Two other families who practise this art are Poothur sangam and Mathur sandham. The art is confined to Northern Kerala, to Palakkad, Thrissur and some parts of Malapurram.
An instrument called the Ezhupara, which is a cylindrical drum made of jack-fruit wood and covered with calf-skin on both ends and cymbals form the main accompaniments. On special occasions the chenda, pipe, drums and gong are added to the existing orchestra.
The legend behind the art form
It is said that the Goddess Kali was dejected at being unable to witness the battle between Rama and Ravana as she was engaged in killing Darika. She implored Lord Shiva to make it possible for her to see this victory of good over evil. Shiva asked her to go to Kera bhoomi, the sacred land made by Parshurama and be in the temple there. At that time, some travellers near the temple were reciting the Kamba Ramayana, which she overheard and enjoyed. So they set up a stage and conducted a Tholpavakoothu for her.
Tholpavakoothu is performed from December to June, during the Pooram season. It is a seven- 14-, 21- or 72-day performance. It is the temple that hosts and sponsors the shows but during the rest of the year the puppeteers do not have much work. It is because of this that the need to modernise and change arose.
With changing times my father introduced several changes. In 1972 he took the art form out of the temple and performed at Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi. After that we have travelled abroad and to different parts of the country giving performances. The newly introduced themes are tales from the ‘Panchatantra’ and we are planning an adaptation of ‘Macbeth.’ We have already staged Gandhi’s story as ‘Gandhikoothu.’ We abridge the versions for the audience and hence this 45-minute version of the Ramayana. We are also planning to have the plays in English to widen our reach to audiences. The script will be written by local writers.
Yes, the work on the puppets is fine and detailed. Even in the action we pay attention to minute actions, like the arrogant walk by Sorpanakha, the glorious coronation ceremony of Rama with the crown being delicately placed on his head. The animals in the forest rejoicing, little things like the twitter of birds, the squirrels over the trees, and the hiss of the snake. All these add to the drama.
We are now making leather puppets and selling them as wall hanging, door decorations and lampshades in addition to the regular puppets for the show. They are popular with tourists.