Legend has it that first came Chaitanya (holiness), then emerged Prakruti (nature), followed by the sun and then, light. As the first man danced, his shadow danced along with him. Shri Ramachandra Pulavar believes that this was the basis for shadow puppetry, an ancient art form which has been around for many centuries.
As man learned more about manipulating light and dark to weave stories, Tholpavakoothu, an art form that is part of Kerala’s rich cultural heritage, emerged.
In fact, Tholpavakoothu is supposed to be the father of modern-day cinema, according to Kalashri KK Ramachandra Pulavar, an eleventh generation puppeteer.
Trained by his father, renowned puppeteer Guru Shri Krishnankutty Pulavar, Ramachandra Pulavar mastered all aspects of the art throughout his childhood. He now guides a team of puppeteers, who are on a mission to revive and recreate a forgotten tradition.
“Not many people are aware of the beauty of this art form. I am trying in my own way to give it the visibility it deserves. The first time you watch Tholpavakoothu, you will always remember the way it made you feel”, he explains.
Hindu mythology recounts the tale of Lord Rama, who vanquished Ravana, precisely at the same time that the goddess Bhadrakali defeated Dharikasura. The goddess who was unable to witness the legendary battle expressed her desire to her father, Lord Shiva.
Shiva commanded her to visit a temple, where she first witnessed Tholpavakoothu. Taking the form of Kamban, a scholar, it is believed that he wrote songs for her, recounting the fight. It is these songs that are used in the traditional form of Tholpavakoothu, performed in temples during the festival season.
As per the norm, leather puppets are manipulated using light from lamps lit in coconut shells. The shadows of these puppets fall against the screen, creating beautiful images, set to music in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Malayalam. In the old days, a show could go on for more than 70 hours!
However, Tholpavakoothu is slowly beginning to experiment with new techniques and different stories, and at the helm of it is Shri Ramachandra Pulavar.
“For any traditional art form, the only time we can perform in temples are during the months of January through March. After festival season, if an artist wants to survive, he or she must find other work for the rest of the year”, says Shri Ramachandra.
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To make Tholpavakoothu more accessible and inclusive, he and his team have managed to use ancient techniques in contemporary forms. Some of his original work includes stories depicting Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle, the legend of Mahabali, and the life of Jesus Christ. He has even done puppet shows for social awareness including road safety and women empowerment.
At his home in Palakkad, he trains fifteen students in a government-sponsored program, where he tries to impart the importance of cultural heritage.
He explains, “We have a theatre in our house. A person just has to come and say, ‘We would like to see how Tholpavakoothu is performed’ and I am happy to show them. Sometimes, we have shows every day! Art is how we earn our livelihood.”
While the life of an artist is not exactly comfortable, Shri Ramachandra is convinced that people are coming to realise the importance of recognising and promoting ancient art forms. The most an artist can ask for, he says, is to have a stage to perform on, and an audience to watch.
As of today, he and his team have performed on over 2,500 stages and continue to develop and promote Tholpavakoothu. He regularly performs for the Department of Tourism and also undertakes private events such as weddings or club events.
“Only old traditions can revive old tales. People are once again remembering the beauty of our customs, and have begun to take an interest in its preservation. As an artist myself, I am happy to be allowed to express my craft”, he adds.
To get in touch with Kalashri KK Ramachandra Pulavar, call +91 98465 34998