Koonathara, Palakkad – A cool breeze, soulful prayer verses and attention-grabbing puppetry mesmerise the 25-plus viewers sitting in chairs underneath the evening sky of Koonathara, a village in Palakkad district in Kerala, India. They’re a mixture of locals and vacationers from everywhere in the world.
Tholpavakoothu (thol which means leather-based, pava which means puppet and koothu which means play) is a type of shadow puppetry carried out throughout occasions and festivals held within the temples devoted to the goddesses Durga or Kaali. The artform is discovered solely in Palakkad, Thrissur and neighbouring villages in Kerala.
Carried out three to 4 instances a month between January and Could, a 42-foot-long particular stage known as koothumadam is about up within the temple premises. It shows mythological figures backlit by fireplace or lights behind a display.
The festive air is palpable as a rhythmic drum beat begins and the performers emerge carrying a lighted lamp. Fireworks go off to announce the beginning of the efficiency after which, in whole darkness apart from the sunshine of the lamp, a way of calmness prevails.
A row of 21 wicks positioned in coconut shells are lit behind the display, made up of a white fabric stretched throughout the koothumadam, bordered by a black fabric.
Tholpavakoothu relies on Kamba Ramayana (the Tamil model of the epic Ramayana), which tells the story of the Hindu God Sri Rama from his start to his coronation because the king of Ayodhya.
It’s stated that tholpavakoothu is carried out to please the Goddess Bhadrakali, as she couldn’t witness the slaying of the demon king Ravana by Rama, which is why an idol of the goddess is positioned on a pedestal in entrance of the stage.
About 160 puppets are used to signify the 70-odd characters of Kamba Ramayana, narrated in diction which is a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil, with songs and poetry known as Adalpattu.
Ten artists – the grasp puppeteer, singers, storytellers and different puppeteers – are extremely expert within the artform.
Sixty-two-year-old Lakshman Pulavar is one in every of them. He has been performing since he was a baby, following within the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and people earlier than them.
His household are the only real keepers of the 300-year-old artform, and have been performing it for eight generations.
The grasp puppeteer is named the “pulavan”, which derives from their household identify Pulavar, which means realized scholar.
The leather-based puppets, that are roughly 80cm in top, are made by Lakshman and his sons, with assist from different members of the family. They’re reduce out from the hides of buffalo and deerskin, painted with vegetable dyes and mounted with sticks.
Manipulating them requires dexterity and focus and is likely one of the most tough components of the efficiency, wherein a complete of two,100 slokas (verses) and their meanings should even be memorised.
In whole, the Pulavar household carry out at 82 temples throughout Palakkad, with Lakshman and his sons accountable for 20 temples, and his brothers and cousins protecting the remaining.
The efficiency usually lasts for 21 days across the Pooram, the annual pageant which falls within the first week of April, however can final even longer. The household additionally performs different exhibits wherein totally different tales are instructed at occasions and features round Palakkad. These performances are shorter, some lasting simply half-hour, and require fewer artists.
“Artists need to endure years of rigorous coaching earlier than mastering this artwork kind,” explains Lakshman, who’s in the midst of coaching some college students and holds a puppet in his hand as he speaks. “It took me a very long time to recite all of the verses verbatim,” he provides.
‘I like being part of it’
The Harisree Kannan Tholpavakoothu Kalakendram at Koonathara is an institute devoted to tholpavakoothu performances and is run by Lakshman and his sons, 31-year-old Sajeesh and 22-year-old Sajith.
The institute organises coaching classes and summer time camps to show the artform, in addition to how one can make the puppets, coaching 10 to twenty grownup college students and 150 to 200 schoolchildren at any given time. Additionally they conduct workshops for worldwide college students learning Indian tradition. For the reason that pandemic, Sajeesh has been giving on-line lessons utilizing a makeshift stage in his home.
“The drum beats and music add a way of euphoria and pleasure to the efficiency, and I like being part of it,” says Sajith, his eyes glowing as he speaks.
His brother Sajeesh left the village to check mechanical engineering and to work for an vehicle agency, however quickly returned to proceed the household custom.
“I’ve learnt the artwork of tholpavakoothu from my father and grandfather for the reason that age of six and have been concerned on this household custom since my childhood,” he says.
Lakshman and his sons are passionate concerning the artwork kind and devoted to preserving it.
However for the reason that COVID-19 pandemic started, the household has been struggling.
On account of restrictions, the length of performances has been diminished from seven or eight hours a day to simply 4, and fewer folks attend. During times of lockdown, performances cease altogether. The dearth of tourism prior to now yr has additionally meant smaller audiences.
Earlier than the pandemic, they’d make 150,000-200,000 rupees ($2,057-$2,744) a month for temple performances. Now they make 50,000-60,000 rupees ($686-$823) per 30 days. However every present prices 20,000-35,000 rupees ($274-$480) to placed on – and what’s left from their earnings have to be divided between the eight to 10 folks concerned in every manufacturing.
With fewer dwell performances, the Pulavars depend upon on-line workshops to complement their revenue. They’ve additionally began renting out their puppets, promoting puppets to vacationers and have even taken up farming. “We’re cultivating rice so as to add to our revenue,” explains Lakshman.
Know-how meets custom
One other difficulty the household has encountered is a dwindling lack of curiosity within the artwork kind amongst youthful generations. However know-how could also be coming to the rescue in that regard.
Thrissur-based Inker Robotics is a tech startup based in 2018 by 38-year-old Rahul Balachandran. It trains college and faculty college students in automation and robotics, in addition to creating robots to work in agriculture, business and different areas.
A number of years in the past, after seeing the quantity of labor concerned in manipulating the puppets, Rahul recommended the Pulavars attempt utilizing robots to function the puppets.
Sajeesh and Lakshman had been immediately interested in the thought, as they believed introducing one thing so trendy to this conventional artwork kind would entice extra folks to it.
“We had been hoping to create consciousness about preserving native traditions and tradition,” Lakshman explains.
However as every robotic would price a number of hundred thousand rupees, they may not afford it.
Then, a number of months in the past, the District Heritage Museum in Palakkad, which hosts one in every of India’s largest collections of musical devices, approached Sajeesh. It wished to host a everlasting tholpavakoothu puppet exhibit. Sajeesh noticed a chance to make use of the robot-operated puppets and spoke to Rahul.
Collectively, they set about creating the primary robot-operated puppet present. Sajeesh demonstrated the hand actions to Rahul and his group, who in flip wrote the code to synchronise the actions.
“Sajeesh and I might brainstorm for hours with my group to convey out the very best efficiency by the robots in order that it displays the unique type of puppetry,” Rahul explains.
It took three months to finish.
It went on present for the primary time in entrance of 100 folks on the museum in February.
“Individuals had been amazed and excited to see the robot-operated puppet present because it was a brand new expertise for them,” says Milton Francis, the director of the museum.
The puppets are programmed in order that when a sensor detects the presence of a customer it performs one of many tales from Kamba Ramayana, lasting between half-hour to 2 hours. It has been an enormous hit since its set up and attracted massive crowds earlier than the newest lockdown.
“The robotic shall be controlling the limb actions of the puppets which is essentially the most tough half,” says Sajeesh, including: “It felt surreal seeing the robotic manipulating the puppets, it was like a dream come true.”
Now they’re contemplating new locations wherein to make use of the robots.
“Now we have used a prototype within the museum and are engaged on the product to put in it on the Kochi airport which has an enormous footfall,” says Rahul. “I’m excited concerning the prospects of know-how and its attain.”
However, regardless of the success of the robot-operated puppets, the Pulavars don’t wish to lose the human contact and have determined to restrict their use to stage performances whereas retaining the standard hand-operated puppets for temple performances out of respect for the “beliefs and traditions of our elders”.
“We really feel that such conventional artwork varieties needs to be unfold and taught to the youthful generations, to see that they don’t go extinct,” says Lakshman.