Last year, during a holiday in Kerala, I learned about something called “Tholpavakoothu” or the art of shadow puppetry. I had heard about this mysterious art once before from a friend who was lucky enough to experience it firsthand.
What was so mysterious about Tholpavakoothu?
Well, Tholpavakoothu wasn’t anything like any puppet you might have come across before, not like the string puppet marionettes I came across in Assam nor the colourful Rajasthani kathputlis I had encountered in Jodhpur. For one, you never got to see Tholpavakoothu puppets up front; they remained behind the screen, like shadowy black silhouettes. Second, it was essentially a ritual art form done in temples, in honour of Goddess Bhadrakali. Third, it happened in the dead of the night on an elevated platform; starting at around 11pm and ending only at daybreak. And fourth, the whole performance told a story, narrated in pure Tamil.
Shadow puppetry is a popular art form, especially in South India. While you will come across coloured, translucent shadow puppets in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the ones in Kerala and Orissa are completely black. (A link to an interesting article on the ones in Andhra Pradesh I found online: http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/art-adroit/article3942139.ece).
In Malayalam, Tholpavakoothu is a compound word of three terms: ‘Thol’ means leather, ‘pava’ means doll and ‘koothu’ means play. About 2,000 years old, legend has it that Tholpavakoothu was staged especially for Goddess Bhadrakali who missed the war in Ramayana because she was busy fighting the demon, Darika. So, the Tamil version of Ramayana called Kamba Ramayana was staged especially for the mother goddess, through poems and narratives, and of course, multiple leather puppets guided by two sticks. An authentic Tholpavakoothu performance goes on for 21 days, performed as an eulogy to the goddess, during which the story of Ramayana is presented in 21 parts using approximately 300 different puppets in a temple. Usually, the “show” is sponsored by a family—and more often than not it isn’t done for an audience per se. The stage faces the temple entrance and the audience comprises none other than Goddess Bhadrakali, who watches from within the temple.
These days, in a bid to popularise the art form, Tholpavakoothu is slowly being adapted to the current times. Late K.L. Krishnankutty Pulavar and his sons from Koonathara in Palakkad belong to the one of the few surviving shadow puppetry communities in Kerala. They are taking up contemporary and secular themes, moving out of temples to perform at events like film festivals and wedding receptions.
Eager to see a Tholpavakoothu performance, I did some asking around. I didn’t have 21 days in hand, nor was I sure if I would be “allowed” to see an authentic performance in a temple. So I settled for the one in the resort I was staying at: Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, a luxury boutique hotel on the edge of a lake. On a special request by a group of art history and culture students from the University of Georgia, the resort had agreed to call in a few traditional Tholpavakoothu artistes for a mini performance in the banquet hall. I couldn’t believe my luck, and I gladly joined students.
I can’t tell if it was close to the real deal, but the hour long show was certainly enthralling. It was dark save for a few oil lanterns in the banquet hall. And as soon as I entered, the drumbeats sounded, providing a heady background score. Slowly a row of candles flickered on, one at a time, behind the long, white cloth on the stage. It was showtime.
Silhouettes of figures hopped around behind the curtain—conversing, bowing and commanding. A fast-paced shloka (in Tamil) explained the events as the story unfolded. Perhaps the most well-done scene was the Ayodhya Battle—a shower of arrows darted across the “screen”, bodies fell one after the other, in perfectly synchronized moves.
As I walked out of the hall, my mind was still with the shadows back on stage. I realized I had thoroughly enjoyed the show. Without understanding a word of it.
I guess it had much to do with the tales my fortunate friend had told me about her experience of Tholpavakoothu at the Chenkattur temple at Palapuram near Ottapalam. It was late at night, probably around eleven when they reached the village. The temple was bustling with activity, but the koothumadam (stage) lay deserted. My friend and her fellow travellers waited quite a while and then slowly the action started. The velchapada (the artiste who formally initiates the performance) brought the offerings from the temple to the stage. He was bare-chested, clad in a dhoti, carrying a sickle, and in a trance. The family (who sponsored the puja and this night’s performance) and the velchapada presented the artistes with the temple offerings. This signalled the beginning of the performance for the Goddess, which was preambled by a long eulogy to Lord Ganesha.
My friend also got to hop “backstage” where she got a lowdown of what happened behind the scenes. The organiser of that particular Tholpavakoothu , Mr Sadanand Pulavar showed her old pieces of puppets, and explained the techniques of holding them up against the light so that they had maximum effect on the other side of the curtain. During the battlescene, the puppeteers would throw fistfuls of gun powder into the flaming bowls of earthen lamps, and suddenly a burst of flame would envelop the arena succeeding in making the scene seem as real and war-like as possible.
Today, some say Tholpavakoothu is dying. The audiences for it have dwindled, the younger generation feels that it pays too less and there is a conspicuous dearth of well-trained artistes. But in some corners of northern Kerala, on a 42 -foot-long koothumadam, drumbeats, black silhouettes and candlesticks rule the stage through the night. Good triumphs over evil, and the show still goes on.
Tholpavakoothu : shadow puppet performances in Kerala
kathputlis : string puppets native to Rajasthan
shloka : a verse from Vedic texts
velchapad : the artiste who officially starts the performance in a trance
koothumadam : stage for a puppet performance