FRIDAY REVIEW The Hindu, 13-09-08
Tolpava koothu is adapting to changed times
Tolpava koothu (leather shadow puppet play), which told the epic story of the Ramayana to generation after generation of rural people in Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts, is striving to survive by re-discovering itself.
Once confined to the koothumadams of Bhagavathy temples, this ancient ritualistic shadow theatre that uses leather puppets to invoke epic characters live on stage, is now slowly moving to the public domain. It is adapting to the changed times by telling new stories, by changing the story and time formats and by relating to the contemporary realities.
“If we refuse to step out of the koothumadam in these times of the television and cinema, this centuries-old art form will die a natural death,” says K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar, the leading Tolpava Koothu artiste who heads the Krishnankutty Pulvar Memorial Tolpava Koothu and Puppetry Centre at Koonanthara near Shoranur. His troupe put on show a 90-minute clipped version of the Ramayana performance in Kochi recently.
Ramachandra Pulavar, whose is the only surviving Pulavar family fully dedicated to the promotion of the puppet theatre, said Tolpava Koothu had lost audience and patronage because it always told the same story extended over several days and only at the koothumadams. The koothu traditionally enacted the Kamba Ramayana (Kambar’s Tamil version of the Ramayana) using Chentamizh, Malayalam and Sanskrit. “We need to tell new stories that are relevant to the modern times in an appealing way to keep our tradition going,” he told The Hindu. His troupe has improvised a performance based on Mahatma Gandhi’s life. Several characters and memorable moments in Gandhi’s life — including the famous scene of a young boy leading Gandhiji by his walking stick — have been made into puppets made of buffalo hide. The troupe has also staged performances to promote communal harmony and to educate people on HIV/AIDS, Mr. Pulavar said. A few of the Panchatantra tales were now being adapted.
The focus, however, is still on the Ramayana story. In the past, the performance used to last seven to 41 days and
was staged between 10 at night and until the Brahma muhoortham (a little before day-break). At the temples the show is legendarily designed to entertain the Mother Goddess who can spare time only at night. Now the show has been abridged to suit the modern audience’s time constraints.
The story is told using over 100 intrinsically fashioned puppets; several musical instruments such ezhupura, ilathaalam, sankh, chenda, maddhalam and chengila; and, also with the spoken word.
The puppets are moved by the puppeteers behind a white screen against the background of 21 wick lamps. The puppets are manipulated by the puppeteers using sticks and the shadows that fall on the screen from behind create the illusion of a dynamic play. Words delivered in a stylised way supply the dialogues and the narration. There is more action behind the screen than on the screen as six to 14 puppeteers run a hectic and sweat-dripping operation even as the flames from the coconut oil lamps stare them straight in their faces.
Mr. Pulavar, whose father Krishnan Kutty was instrumental in bringing the puppet play out on the public stage, feels that going public had helped to rekindle interest in this peculiar theatre form. Since it was part of the rituals at the temple, the devotees paid only causal attention, but on public stage, people took it seriously. However, Mr. Pulavar, who quit his job as a postal employee to promote the koothu, complains that it is hard to find dedicated young people to carry on the tradition. Upendra K.R., a Bangalore-based theatre person who is doing a research in the story-telling traditions of South India, pointed out that only in Kerala could one find permanent theatre (koothumadam) built exclusively for the leather shadow puppet theatre.
He pointed out that the gripping way in which the Ramayana story is told by the puppeteers had helped to keep the Ramayana epic alive in the rural areas of Palakkad and neighbouring districts.
Mr. Pulavar and his family and co-artistes say that their efforts to keep the Tolpava Koothu going by adapting to the times would succeed only if the government and arts bodies backed them.