Looking back, K K Ramachandra Pulavar reels out a row of episodes from his life as a puppeteer of an ancient Dravidian art that has gone through critical changes over the past half a century. The anecdotes bear despair and hope, much like the history of Tholpavakkoothu he has mastered as a member of a Tamil-speaking family that traditionally presents the form across their native central Kerala.
In 1968, for instance, eight-year-old Ramachandran was taken by his father to a feudal mansion in their neighbourhood off Shoranur in Palakkad district. The mission was to meet the one-time powerful Mooppil Nair who had ruled Kavalappara fiefdom. Master puppeteer Krishnankutty Pulavar had taken the little boy to present a weighty bunch of bananas as a mark of respect to the erstwhile chieftain of their territory. Mooppil Nair, their benefactor till a couple of decades ago, sported a benign smile and advised the boy to learn Tholpavakkoothu. “There are no many artistes,” Nair noted. “Do work hard to rise in the field.”
Cut to 2008, and Ramachandra Pulavar is in Jerusalem. It isn’t his first visit to the Middle East city; the artiste was there the previous year to participate in a festival featuring puppetry from India, China and Indonesia. That month-long stint in August 2007 had prompted him to conceive a puppet show with Jesus Christ as the protagonist. The production went on to earn applause from audiences across the world.
The four decades between the two incidents above perhaps epitomise the way Tholpavakkoothu has flourished over time. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean the art-form has distanced from its conventional platforms. Tholpavakoothu continues to have its mainstay in Hindu temples, where the medieval Tamil epic ‘Kamba Ramayana’ is presented in detailed format lasting nights together. From December-end, the koothumadam space for the show at rustic temples get lit up with 21 oil lamps in rows against a rectangular white curtain on which shadows of the mythological figures move to narrate their tales to the accompaniment of vocals and percussion.
“The annual season is on again. It spans a good six months till May,” says Pulavar, 58, in the middle of a hectic schedule across shrines in the adjoining districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram. “Traditional Tholpavakkoothu performances are held in around 85 temples there. Our (Kavalappara) troupe stages half of them.” Even so, the master takes out time for allied activities outside of the conventional circuit: he is just through with a three-day workshop on puppet-making on the margins of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the country’s biggest contemporary art event.
Tholpavakkoothu underwent a hard phase for a quarter century starting from the 1960s, overlapping his toddler days to youthfulness. “The royal patronage had thinned a lot. Neither did we get enough institutional support under democracy,” he speaks about the period that lasted till the mid-1980s. “Tholpavakkoothu had very few practitioners left. Temple administrations, themselves impoverished, were forced to contain our shows to its skeletal form. It looked our art was dying.”
Even so, there were signs of revival. In 1968, the year little Ramachandran met Mooppil Nair, Tholpavakkoothu had its first performance outside a temple. That was in Thiruvananthapuram city as part of a milestone conference of Malayalis from across the globe.
Then, in 1972, the Union government hosted cultural event that featured Kerala’s Tholpavakkoothu. “That was the first occasion for the masters of my art-form to perform themselves outside Kerala,” notes Pulavar, who, however, wasn’t included in the troupe that went upcountry. “I was just a boy then, you know.”
Six years thence, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi convened a pioneering national puppetry festival. The organisers were particularly impressed with Tholpavakkoothu that retained much of its traditional aesthetics (including not resorting to electric bulbs for lighting). Social reformer and freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who was an influential voice with the Akademi that is an autonomous body, began encouraging it in a big way.
Soon, in 1979, Tholpavakkoothu went abroad. “Our debut trip to a foreign country. It was to Russia. Tashkent. For a global festival that had puppet shows from 55 countries. Tholpavakkoothu was India’s sole representation,” recalls Pulavar, expressing gratitude to the encouragement from performing-arts scholar Venu G, who has penned a book on puppetry among others.
By that time, back home, Ramachandran’s legendary father Krishnankutty Pulavar had started to make puppets on his own. That was a defining departure from convention, as the paraphernalia for the art were hitherto made by (underprivileged) communities that were into leather work. “It happened de facto. My father noticed that quite a few puppets were slipping into a bad condition owing to poor maintenance. He didn’t find it good to perform with worn-out figures. All the same, we didn’t have enough money to get new ones,” notes Ramachandra Pulavar. “So, my father began repairing them. In the process, he learned more about puppet-making and garnered the confidence to cut new ones. Today, puppet-making is part of our family profession.”
The younger members of the household today are of good help to the team leader. Pulavar’s sons, Rajeev K and Rahul K, are vital members of the Kavalappara troupe. By the turn of the present century, women too have begun finding slots in the performance as well as backstage activities. Ramachandra’s wife Rajalakshmi and their only daughter Rajitha are solid examples.
Rajeev, 29, was initiated into Tholpavakkoothu by his grandfather Krishnankutty Pulavar (1925-2000). “I was four years old when grandpa would call me in the evenings, make me sit cross-legged in front of the lit lamp and ensure I reproduce the songs (of the Kamba Ramayana with 12,126 verses),” he recalls. “It wasn’t easy, but then that is the rigour for anyone.” Rahul later went on to learn from his father besides other masters such as Uppath Narayanan Nair and Palappuram Ramankutty Pulavar.
Adds Rahul, who is pursuing MA in folklore studies after a year’s study in theatre acting at the National School of Drama’s Bangalore centre: “Tholpavakkootthu requires more young artistes today.” The art-form currently has half-a-dozen troupes.
The performance hours of Tholpavakkoothu in traditional spaces have come down of late, notes Ramachandra Pulavar, who was among the first batch of students to come out of a puppetry institution his grandfather founded in 1984 and later (in 2015) authored a book on the art form. “It used to be for 10 hours from, say, 9.30 in the night. In fact, the death of (anti-hero) Ravana is ideally essayed in the sunrise hour,” he recalls. “Today, it starts around 10 in the night and ends in the small hours around 3 am. The verses, too, total only two-third of what we used to render earlier.”
It was in 2004 that Pulavar sought to go for the first Tholpavakkoothu production that had its theme outside the Ramayana. “That was ‘Gandhikkoothu’ based on the life of the Mahatma. An hour’s production, which has now verbal versions in Hindi and English as well besides Malayalam and Tamil,” he reveals.
This was followed by one on Jesus Christ; the production was called ‘Yeshukkoothu’. “It has 15 episodes, starting from the birth of Jesus to the crucifixion,” Pulavar talks about the project that was completed with the support of Malayalam professor V A Varghese of a college in Irinjalakuda of Thrissur district. This was by more productions on mythical and historical stories such as Mahabali (2009), the Mahabharata (2012), Swami Ayyappa (2015) and the Buddha (2017), besides those on AIDS awareness and against alcoholism.
Significantly, Tholpavakkoothu, which has two dozen members of puppeteers, helpers and musicians when presented full-fledged, is an art-form where the performers do not get to see their audience. “We function along the narrow space between the lamps and the screen. The size of the crowd, if at all, least matters to us at temples. At the koothumadam (theatre), it’s our offering to (goddess) Bhagavati,” says Pulavar. Back in his scenic Koonathara village by the broad Bharatapuzha river, the family is readying for yet another performance to be led by the master.