Tholpava Koothu or Shadow Puppetry

Puppet shows are one of the most age-old theatre arts that are deep-rooted in almost every civilization and across different ages. Tholpava Koothu is a form of puppetry with a difference. The theatre art performed in different parts of Northern Kerala is different in its style of presentation and is all about the play with shadow puppets. ‘Shadow Play’ or ‘Nizhalatom ‘as it is locally called is a ritualistic art form that is performed in the ‘Badrakali’ temples located in Northern Kerala.

Thol means skin, Pava means doll and Koothu means play. The puppets are made of leather and are played behind a curtain with lamps lit all around. According to Rajeev, one of the main puppeteers at Tholpava Koothu Centre, located at Koonathara, Shornur in Palakkad district of Kerala, this form of puppetry has a definitive cultural mix of Aryan and Dravidian races. “This art form is believed to have started during the 8th century. The Aryans and the Dravidians added the Bhakthi flavor to the puppetry. We perform the Tamil epic, ‘Kamba Ramayanam’ in Tholpava Koothu for the temples. The language of the play is again a mixture of three languages- Tamil, Malayalam and Sanskrit” says Rajeev, whose father, Kalasree Ramachandra Pulavar, is the head of the Tholpava Koothu Center. The father- son duo has received wide acclaim across national and international platforms for their riveting puppetry shows. Ramachandra Pulavar received the prestigious National Sangeeth Nataka Academy Award from the President of India in 2015. Rajeev, who is almost on the same trajectory like his father received the highly coveted Ustad Bismillah Khan Award for Youth from Sangeetha Nataka Academy.

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“During ancient times, the dolls were made of pine leaves and then gradually deer skin was used for more than 600 years. Now we use the skin of goats and calves to make the dolls. The dolls are fitted on to long bamboo sticks. Each doll is made to 80cm in height and cut and shaped to different postures” continues Rajeev on his art.

Ramachandra Pulavar With His Doll
Some Clicks From Tholpavakoothu

21 lamps that are carved out of coconut shells are used to light the screen. Each lit lamp is placed at equal distances on a make-shift ledge called the ‘Vilakku Madom’ behind the curtain. The place where the puppetry is performed and which is usually just outside the temple premises is a called the ‘koothumadom’. According to the popular legend, Goddess Badrakali did not to see the fabled fight between Lord Rama and the Demon Ravana, as she was busy fighting the demon Dhanuka. The Tholpava Koothu was formulated for her as an iconic replay of the legendary fight. That is the main reason why the form of puppetry is a predominantly a temple art.

“We use 160 puppets for Ramayana play. These puppets represent the 71 characters in the play, each cut to different postures like standing, sitting, walking, different facets of nature, the many battle scenes and the ceremonial parades” says Rajeev. Cylindrical drums made of jackwood tree and cymbals are the key music instruments used for the shows. However, various other musical instruments that are very much part of the Kerala culture like the Shankh- conch, Chenda and Madalam- the drums, Chengila-gongs and Kurum Kuzhal- the short wind pipe are used when required and on major occasions. Tholpava Koothu is performed in about 105 Devi temples located in Thrissur, Malapuram and Palakkad districts of northern Kerala and then according to the tradition of the temple, the puppet show is performed for 7, 21, 41 or 71 days.

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There are about eight artists in the troupe including the chief puppeteer and they are called the ‘Pulavars’. “The Pulavars are not a specific community as such, but it’s a traditionally bestowed honorary title upon a person who masters Tholpava Koothu. During the ancient times the name ‘Pulavar’ was like a sort of special recognition bequeathed by the king upon a person who learnt TholpavaKoothu and the tradition does continue even now. And it is not an easy art. The learning process takes about 15 years and one needs to learn nearly 3000 verses of the play. The text is an ocean consisting of many arguments and counter arguments. “We provide training classes at our center here for young children from when they are about 5 or 6 years of age. We have framed a definite syllabus for this. We start the training sessions with simple songs and then gradually get the youngsters on to difficult ones. We give them the dolls after three years from when they start learning the art, at around eight years of age. Until then we teach them the songs called the ‘Kalari Chendu’ or ‘kalari’ songs in order to make them learn the right thalam or the required beats needed to perform the puppetry.” Rajeev definitely learned the art the hard way as it is clearly evident that there are no shortcuts to master this age-old art.

It was in 1979 that Tholpava Koothu broke away from the ritualistic barriers of the temples and was first performed as a theatre art in Bangalore and from then on to numerous other stages. “For theatre, we have shortened the drama. We try and showcase the major parts of the Kamba Ramayanam in a short span of 3 minutes to 30 minutes. Apart from Ramayana, we have plays based on contemporary themes, on folklores like the Panchatantara stories, on other religious texts and about famous personalities like Gandhiji for one. We want the world at large to know about this ancient but vibrant art and so we experiment with many other themes. And thus far we have succeeded in our endeavors” speaks Rajeev- truly from his heart and ever brimming with love for his art.

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The Tholpavakoothu Center at Shornur also has a museum with doll exhibits as old as nearly 700 years as well as a custom-made showroom for the dolls. For more info please visit