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Dancing out of the shadows

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on February 22, 2021

In tune with the times: Ramachandra Pulavar has curated Tholpavakoothu productions on contemporary themes such as awareness about the Covid-19 pandemic   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Padma Shri awardee Ramachandra Pulavar — the 12th generation exponent of Tholpavakoothu in his family — on taking the traditional form of shadow puppetry performed in temples to a wider audience

* Pulavar is also collaborating with modern dancers, theatre practitioners and film-makers

* In the ’70s, Pulavar’s father, the legendary artiste Krishnan Kutty Pulavar, along with Koodiyattam performer and scholar G Venu, democratised the art form by expanding its reach beyond the temple walls

* Pulavar’s productions include Yesucharitam, the story of Christ, Gandhikoothu depicting the life story of Gandhi, and Chandalabhikshuki, based on Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan’s poem on caste oppression

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Ramachandra Pulavar remembers only too well the early rewards that lured him to Tholpavakoothu, a form of shadow puppetry practised in Kerala. As a six-year-old, he was given four annas and 10 paise. Not to forget the grand meals rounded off with payasam offered by the hosts at their homes after the koothu (performance).

“The sessions that followed a performance were joyful. After lunch, the hosts would ask me to sing. When I regaled them with a song, they would offer me four annas!” recalls the 61-year-old artiste.

Grander awards have come Pulavar’s way since then, the latest being the Padma Shri, announced last month. The Tholpavakoothu artiste, the 12th generation practitioner of the art in his family, is not just keeping alive a vibrant art form but taking it beyond its traditional space — the temple premises — to educational institutions and art festivals. He is also collaborating with modern dancers, theatre practitioners and film-makers. Cut-outs of figures move behind a white curtain and against an illuminated backdrop in this traditional form of storytelling.

A song in the popular 2002 Malayalam film Meesa Madhavan has a Tholpavakoothu scene where the shadow of the hero fights the silhouette of a deer. The animal puppet was made by Pulavar. Legendary film-maker G Aravindan knocked on Pulavar’s studio door when he wanted a logo for the popular International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). The icon of a liberated Lankalakshmi, the goddess who stood guard to Ravana’s fort, created by him in the ’90s is still synonymous with the IFFK.

“Tholpavakoothu has been presented over the years in the devi temples as part of a ritual without spectators in central Kerala. I want to widen its reach in society without losing the soul of the art form. So this award is a beginning. There is so much to do,” Pulavar says.

His ancestors were often rewarded with gold bangles and silk cloth by the erstwhile rulers for their performance. “We still treasure those gifts, they are considered as prestigious as the Padma Shri is today. Our ancestors have surrendered their lives to this art form,” Pulavar observes.

Every year, from January to May, the Pulavar family sets out with a box filled with puppets to perform Tholpavakoothu in the devi temples in different villages of Kerala. “During those seven, 14, 21, 41 or 71 days for which we are booked, we mingle with the soul of the village. The villagers gather to welcome us; when Pulavars visit a village, it means the ‘devi’ (the goddess) has visited them. They treat us with respect, humility and devotion. At the host’s home, we enquire about everyone’s health and well-being.”

Four Tholpavakoothu troupes dominated the performance scene in Kerala in the past. But, except for his troupe — the Kavalappara Sangam, the others never reached out to venues outside of the temples, claims Pulavar. In the ’70s, Pulavar’s father, the legendary artiste Krishnan Kutty Pulavar, along with Koodiyattam performer and scholar G Venu, democratised the art form by expanding its reach beyond the temple walls — a revolutionary act at the time.

After performing it in the public domain in different parts of Kerala, Pulavar, the next-generation artiste, took Tholpavakoothu to 40-odd countries including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hungary and Malaysia. In 2017, he and Venu performed at the International Puppetry Festival in Budapest. “At a time when many concluded that there was no scope for growth in this art form, we got a standing ovation. That programme in Hungary was the best of our lifetime,”says Rahul Pulavar, his son, also a practitioner of Tholpavakoothu.

For the deity: Tholpavakoothu is traditionally performed in the devi temples of Kerala   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

While Krishnan Kutty mostly performed stories from the Ramayana, his son explored many contemporary themes. Pulavar’s Tholpavakoothu productions include Yesucharitam, the story of Christ, Gandhikoothu depicting the life story of Gandhi, Chandalabhikshuki, based on Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan’s poem addressing issues of caste oppression, as well as tales from the Panchatantra. He has also created an awareness campaign on Covid-19.

Pulavar’s children now assist him in exploring new dimensions of puppetry. Son Rahul, who is researching various aspects of puppetry, says that his brother Rajeev learnt the Japanese Bunraku style of puppet-making and sister Rajitha was the first woman to receive the Yuva Pratibha Puraskar in the field of Tholpavakoothu.

Rajitha dreams of setting up an all-woman puppeteers’ group one day. “I want to take it forward as a profession. My grandfather was my first guru. I learnt along with my brothers from the age of seven. My grandfather never discriminated on the basis of gender. He wanted women to enter this profession,” she observes.

Her father has been instrumental in opening up the art form to women, facilitating theatre initiatives by women and encouraging them to learn puppet-making at his institute in Koonathara, near Shornur in Palakkad. Today, he trains around 30 women in puppet-making, skilled artistes chosen by the Central government’s handicrafts department under the ministry of textiles.

Pulavar believes that good times are in store for Tholpavakoothu. “It is through the arts that we learn about our lineage and cultural traditions. In villages especially, these arts forms play a huge role in creating awareness. However challenging it turns out, these arts are here to stay. If you want culture, there must be art.”

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur

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Published on February 22, 2021
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