Tholpavakoothu- The Shadow Puppetry of Kerala

Kerala over the years has laid immense focus on maintaining and enriching the cultural heritage of India. The state’s notable contribution has evolved through the centuries, nourishing some of the finest art form of this country including the ancient Tholpavakoothu or shadow puppet play, which is a fine example of the integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures

The Shadow Puppetry of Kerala
The Shadow Puppetry of Kerala

This unique shadow puppetry Tholpava koothu, is an ancient peculiar ritualistic art form dedicated to Bhagavati, worshiped by the people of Kerala as the Mother Goddess, and preserved as a family tradition by the Pulavars. It is amazing how this shadow puppetry is performed using the mythological figure along with the use of fire. We got in talks with the the only group performing and preserving this art still in Kerala, the uniqueness of which has even invited applaud from India’s Got Talent where the group reached the semi-final, winning the hearts of many. Let us hear from them 🙂

Please tell us something about you?

My name is Rajeev Pulavar and I belong to the ninth generation of Pulavar community, which is solely responsible of taking care and preserving the unique art of shadow puppetry in Kerala. 

Rajeev Pulavar with the shadow puppet
Rajeev Pulavar with the shadow puppet

Guru Krishnan Kutty Pulavar introduced this art form to the outside world, which was earlier reserved to be showcased within the vicinity of temple but with his efforts, shadow puppetry was introduced in the outer world and is popular among the foreigners.

Tell us more about Tholpava Koothu?

Sure. Let me try explaining this to you from the base. For centuries, Puppetry is considered as an art form of theatre that involves manipulation of puppets in an animate object, often resembling a human or animal figure, where the puppeteer handles these puppets and enact a story. This art form is as old as the 5th century BC, which came from ancient Greece and has remained one of the favorite art form for majority of states in India. The catch is that every state reserves to showcase puppetry in its unique way

Rajeev Pulavar, demonstrating the making of the puppet
Rajeev Pulavar, demonstrating the making of the puppet

But with shadow puppetry, the case was different. In the ancient southern region of India, the religious practices of locals and their moral code of conduct were derived majorly from Dravidian Culture, which are mainly classified under early Guptas and chaulakyas. But gradually, with time the new religious practices entered south, with an impact from the northern India and an influence was observed of Aryan culture, into the daily practices of South India. It didn’t only impacted their religious practices but also affected the ancient art. Tholpava koothu is one such fine example of the integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures, into an art form which truly belonged to the south

Rajeev Pulavar, demonstrating the making of the puppet
Rajeev Pulavar, demonstrating the making of the puppet

From where did Tholpava Koothu originated ?

In Malayalam, Thol means leather, pava means doll and koothu the play but the origin of this ritualistic art form is not known. Some believe it is to be as old as 1200 years but typically Tholpavakoothu is presented for 7, 14 or 41 days as an offering at temples dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali. The lead puppeteer in this artform is called Pulavar.

The shadow puppets in action :)
The shadow puppets in action 🙂

Tell us about the history. How come Ramayana got associated with this art form ?

It is believed that Goddess Bhadrakali was busy killing Dharika, and could not watch the triumph of Lord Rama over the demon king Ravana and the subsequent release of Sita. Since the goddess missed that epic battle between Rama and Ravana, the story of Ramayana was staged in the form of Tholpavakoothu, especially Yudha Kanda, the chapter dealing with the war. The story of Ramayana is composed for Tholpavakoothu in 21 parts, which are presented during 21 nights. About 180 puppets are needed for a full performance.

The shadow puppets in action :)
The shadow puppets in action 🙂

It is believed that the man who first incorporated verses from the Ramayana in to the literary composition of this art form was Chinnathampi Vadhyar, who belonged to Puthur village of Palghat. He came from a scholars family, who had studied the Ramayana in depth. Curious to go deeper into it, he decided to pay a visit to a Brahmin’s house, to listen to its recitation. But instead he was told that he has no right to listen to the reading of the Puranas and the scriptures. Insulted by this treatment, he resolved to present the Ramayana in such a way that even ordinary people would enjoy it. He found Tholpava Koothu to be the best medium. The art form is usually staged late in the evening. As per the local belief, this ritual art form is watched by the goddess, who in turn blesses the community.

But I heard that shadow puppetry is declining in demand. Is it true?

In Tamil Nadu this art form is in declining stage. In some part of Thanjavur, it acts as a street play but on the whole the state is seeing less of demand of this art. Irony is while the younger generation in India is not realising its worth, it has become a hot topic of research for many foreign universities. Professors and students from California University, often visit India to learn indepth about Tholpava Koothu. This subject has lot of aspects for Research, which helps us to improvise and enrich our cultural & social traditions.

The young generation getting trained in Shadow puppetry
With the younger lot

What is the kind of training which goes behind to prepare a puppeteer perform TholpavaKoothu?

Scholarship in Ramayana is not the only qualification for a Tholpava Koothu performer. He has to be well versed in puranas and shastras and also be competent enough to speak fluently on the topic. Pulavar is the honorable title id given to scholar-cum-performer who has in depth knowledge of Tholpava Koothu. To become a puppet show man one has to study for 15 years under a scholar. Also, in the earlier time women never participated but with time they have started to involve in this art form actively.

Tell us how to do make these puppets? 

Thol Pavakoothu puppets are made of deer skin. The figures are drawn on the skin, cut and embellished with dots, lines and holes. The arms of the puppets are made movable. The expression on the faces of the puppets are decided after considering the figures, they would be enacting. 

Tell us something about yourself and your group. What do you do in your daily lives when not performing?

Our group hails from Shoranur, Palakkad District. If not doing the shows, we resort to farming. 

Since when have you been practicing the art of shadow puppetry ?

I got trained from my childhood days itself. My grandfather used to teach us in the small vandanams. By the young age of 8 -10, we got rigorous training in learning the narrations and puppet making, to keep this going

The shows for them can be booked here 

P.S. All the photographs in this blog has been submitted by Mr. Rajeev Pulavar. None of it personally belongs or clicked by me 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Tholpavakoothu- The Shadow Puppetry of Kerala

  1. Pingback: Human by Nature: An Ode | Buoyant Feet

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