FRIDAY REVIEW The Hindu, 13-06-07
Play of light and shadows
As the lamps were lit, the stage came alive with characters from mythology. The Tholpavakoothu that was performed at Vylloppilly Samskriti Bhavan, Thiruvananthapuram, was an ode to the skills of the artistes and their style of storytelling.
Behind long white curtains, the nimble fingers of celebrated artistes of the Palakkad-based Krishnankutty Pulavar Memorial Tholpava Koothu Sanghom, breathed life into the leather puppets that were transformed into the characters of the Ramayana.
A ritualistic performance dedicated to Bhadrakali, Tholpavakoothu, a form of shadow puppetry using leather puppets, is usually performed in Devi temples from January to May at specially constructed theatres called Koothu madom. Legend has it that Tholpavakoothu was performed at the request of Bhadrakali who was not able to witness the death of Ravana as she was busy fighting Darika. So the entire incident was enacted through puppetry.
The ritualistic performance, which usually consists of nine-hour performances spread over 21 days, was abridged into a one-and-a-half-hour drama. The event began with a kelikottu and an invocation by eight artistes, led by K.K. Ramandra Pulavar. The screen was gradually illuminated by 21 earthen lamps. The lamps were placed behind the puppets so that the shadows of the characters fell on the white curtain that served as a screen..
The artistes presented select incidents from the ‘Kambaramayana.’ The most striking scene was Sita’s abduction by Ravana. Mareecha’s appearance as a deer was cleverly enacted by the artistes. The viewers were transported to a magical world of magic and wizardry on account of the life-like movements of the puppet as it was made to gambol and frolic like a deer. The duel between Bali and Sugreeva also deserves special mention.
The viewers watched the action-filled scene with bated breath as the combatants fought with trees, swords, mountains et al. To add a touch of drama, fire was dexterously used behind the curtain to accentuate the battle scenes. The play ended with Ravana being defeated by Rama.
The performance was accompanied by Sankrit songs and a Malayalam narration that had touches of Tamil as well. “Originally it was Chenthamil,” says Ramachandra Pulavar. So what is the relevance of puppetry these days in the world of art? “Children can easily relate to puppets,” answers Ramachandra. “Our stories usually are about good triumphing over evil; so there is a message in our stories.” Tholpavakoothu needs 160 puppets for the performance of the ‘Ramayana.’
So does that mean the art form is expensive to practise?
Ramachandra smiles and points to the puppet of Rama, “This puppet is nearly 80 years old and is made from deer skin. We use natural dyes to give it an antique tone. See the design, just like the temple murals. Yes it is an expensive and tiresome job.”
The artistes are trained for nearly six years before they venture into the field. All the puppeteers have to be trained in all branches of puppetry, including puppet-making. The troupe based at Koonathara in Palakkad, is “the only surviving Pulavar family in Kerala performing the shadow puppetry,” claims Ramachandra.
In the age of television, a traditional art form like Tholpavakoothu is fighting a battle for survival.
“We have already adapted the stories of Panchathanthra and incidents from the life of Gandhiji for stage.”
The troupe will perform in Jerusalem next month.