Kunathara, Palakkad – Cool breeze, lively prayer verses and eye-catching puppet shows mesmerized an audience of over 25 years old seated on chairs under the night sky of Konathara, a village in Palakkad district of Kerala state, India. They are a mix of locals and tourists from all over the world.
Tholpavakoothu (thol means skin, pava means doll and koothu means play) is a form of shadow puppetry performed during events and festivals held at temples dedicated to the goddess Durga or Kali. The art form is only found in Palakkad, Thrissur and neighboring villages in Kerala.
Performed three to four times a month between January and May, a special 42-foot stage called koothumadam is set up in the temple premises. Shows backlit legendary characters with fire or lights behind the screen.
The festive air unfolds as the percussive drum begins and performers emerge with a lit lamp. Fireworks go off to announce the start of the parade and then, in complete darkness except for the light of the lamp, a sense of calm prevails.
A row of 21 wicks placed in coconut husks lighted behind the bulkhead, made up of a white cloth stretched across the cothumadam, bounded by a black cloth.
Tholpavakoothu is based on the Kamba Ramayana (the Tamil version of the epic Ramayana), which tells the story of the Hindu deity Sri Rama from his birth until his coronation as King of Ayodhya.
It is said that tholpavakoothu is performed to please the goddess Bhadrakali, because she could not witness the killing of the demonic king Ravana by Rama, which is why an idol of the goddess was placed on a pedestal in front of the stage.
About 160 dolls are used to represent the seventy individual characters of the Kampa Ramayana, whose diction is narrated in a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil, with songs and poetry called Adalpattu.
Ten artists – puppeteers, singers, storytellers and other puppeteers – are highly skilled in the art form.
Lakshman Bulavar, 62, is one of them. He has been playing since his childhood, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and before them.
His family are solely responsible for the 300-year-old art form, and they have performed it for eight generations.
The principal puppeteer is called “Pulavan,” which is derived from his family name Pulavar, which means learned scholar.
The leather dolls, whose height is about 80 cm, were made by Lakshman and his sons with the help of other family members. They are cut from buffalo and deer skins, painted with vegetable dyes and secured with sticks.
Manipulating them requires skill and focus and is one of the most difficult parts of performing, as a total of 2,100 behaviors and their meanings must also be memorized.
In total, the Pulavar family performs at 82 temples across Palakkad, with Lakshman and his sons in charge of 20 temples, and his brothers and cousins covering the rest.
The parade usually lasts for 21 days around Pooram, the annual festival that falls in the first week of April, but it can go on for much longer. The family also offers other shows in which various stories are told in events and functions around Palakkad. These shows are shorter, some only 30 minutes long, and require fewer artists.
“Artists have to go through years of rigorous training before mastering this art form,” explains Lakshman, who is coaching some students and holds a doll in his hand as he speaks. “It took me a long time to literally recite all the verses,” he adds.
“I’d love to be a part of it’
Harisree Kannan Tholpavakoothu Kalakendram in Koonathara is an institute dedicated to tholpavakoothu performances and is run by Lakshman and his sons, 31-year-old Sajesh and 22-year-old Sajith.
The institute organizes training courses and summer camps to teach the art form, as well as how to make dolls, training 10-20 adult students and 150-200 pupils at any one time. They also conduct workshops for international students studying Indian culture. Since the pandemic, Sajesh has been giving lessons online using a makeshift stage in his home.
“The beats of the drum and the music add a sense of euphoria and excitement to the performance, and I love being a part of it,” says Sajith, his eyes sparkling as he speaks.
His brother Sajesh left the village to study mechanical engineering and work in an automobile company, but soon returned to continue the family tradition.
“I learned the art of thulpavakutho from my father and grandfather since I was six and have been involved in this family tradition since my childhood,” he says.
Lakshman and his sons are passionate about the art form and dedicated to its preservation.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the family has been struggling.
Because of the restrictions, the duration of performances was reduced from seven or eight hours a day to just four hours, and fewer people attended. During closing periods, shows stop completely. The lack of tourism in the last year has also led to a decline in crowd numbers.
Before the pandemic, they were earning between 150,000 and 200,000 rupees ($2057 – $2744) per month for temple offerings. Now they are making 50,000-60,000 rupees ($686 – $823) per month. But each show costs between 20,000 and 35,000 rupees ($274 – $480) – and the rest of their profits must be divided between the eight to ten people involved in each production.
With fewer live shows, Pulavars rely on online workshops to supplement their income. They also began renting their dolls, selling dolls to tourists, and even engaged in farming. “We grow rice to add to our income,” explains Lakshman.
Technology meets tradition
Another problem the family faced was the lack of interest in the art form among the younger generations. But technology may be on its way to the rescue in this regard.
Thrissur-based Enker Robotics is a tech startup founded in 2018 by 38-year-old Rahul Balachandran. It trains school and university students in automation and robotics, as well as developing robots to work in agriculture, industry and other fields.
A few years ago, after seeing the amount of work involved in manipulating dolls, Rahul suggested that Pulavars try using robots to operate dolls.
Sajeesh and Lakshman were immediately attracted to the idea, as they believed that introducing something ultra-modern to this traditional art form would attract more people to it.
“We hoped to create awareness about preserving local traditions and culture,” explains Lakshman.
But since each robot will cost hundreds of thousands of rupees, they cannot afford it.
Then, a few months ago, the local heritage museum in Palakkad, which hosts one of the largest collections of musical instruments in India, approached Sajeesh. She wanted to host a permanent exhibition of tholpavakoothu dolls. Sajesh saw an opportunity to use the robot-managed puppets and spoke to Rahul.
Together, they set out to create the first robot-powered puppet show. Sajeesh showed the hand movements to Rahul and his team, who in turn wrote the code to synchronize the movements.
“Sajesh and I have been brainstorming for hours with my team to bring out the best performance of the robots so that they reflect the original style of puppet art,” explains Rahul.
It took three months to complete.
It was first shown to 100 people at the museum in February.
“People were amazed and excited to see the robot-run puppet show because it was a new experience for them,” says Milton Francis, director of the museum.
The dolls are programmed so that when a sensor detects the presence of a visitor, it plays one of the stories from the Kampa Ramayana, which lasts between 30 minutes and two hours. It has been a huge hit since its installation and drew big crowds before the last shutdown.
“The robot will control the movements of the dolls’ limbs, which is the hardest part,” says Sajesh, adding, “It felt surreal to see the robot manipulating the dolls, it was like a dream come true.”
Now they are thinking of new places to use robots.
“We used a prototype in the museum and are working on the product to install at Kochi Airport, which is very popular,” says Rahul. “I am excited about the prospects and reach of the technology.”
But, despite the success of the robot-operated puppets, the Pulavars did not want to lose the human touch and decided to limit their use to theatrical performances while keeping the traditional manually-operated puppets in temple performances out of respect for “the beliefs and traditions of our elders”.
“We feel that such traditional art forms should be disseminated and taught to younger generations so that they do not become extinct,” says Lakshman.