Tholpavakoothu is an ancient form of shadow puppetry practised with grandeur and galore in the state of Kerala. The inherent reason for performing the amazing art is the ardent dedication towards Goddess Bhadrakali. The show is enacted in the Bhagavati temples in a specially created stage called the Koothumadam.
To understand the essence behind the word Tholpavakoothu, it needs to be split into Thol which signifies leather, Pava meaning a doll or a puppet and Koothu symbolizes a play or a drama. The puppets are made out of leather and are designed skillfully to portray the characters in disguise.
The history of Tholpavakuthu dates back to 9th century AD. As per the myth, it is believed that Goddess Bhadrakali desired to watch the killing of Ravana by Lord Rama. She could not witness the fight since she was defending the world from the attack of the demon Darika. To perform the act of Ravana’s defeat, the puppet show was organized for her. Since then the puppet show is performed in the temples of the Goddess in front of her idol.
The entire story of the grand epic Ramayana was conducted through the shadow puppetry in 21 parts. The locals believe that Goddess Bhadrakali watches the plays every time it is performed in the temples and blesses them.
The Shadow Puppets
The shadow puppets are made out of leather and are hand-painted with natural colours by the artists themselves. The colours used are made out of vegetable dyes for longevity and purity. The height of the puppets is almost 4 to 5 feet and are manipulated by 2 sticks. The epic Ramayana requires 150 to 180 puppets to complete the entire performance. Around 40 artists take part in the act, controlling the movement of the puppets as well as singing and narrating along with them. The puppets are adorned with vibrant coloured costumes as per the characters depicted by them.
The Puppet Shows
Tholpavakoothu is performed in a long stage inside the Devi temple premises in front of Bhadrakali. The stage is essentially 42 feet long and consists of a translucent screen behind which the shadow puppets are placed. Lights are focused on the screen to produce the shadow effect. In order to visualize the shadow puppets, the lights are placed on beams made of wood at a measurable distance from the screen. Traditional earthen lamps are used as lights to create an illuminating effect.
The puppeteers initiate the show with hymns dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali. The shows happen mostly in the evenings. Acts illustrating long tales similar to that of Ramayana often extend throughout the night till early morning. Almost innumerable temples on Kerala host the puppet shows with utmost dedication. The shows are conducted usually between the months of January and May. During Pooram, the annual festival of Kerala, you can also watch Tholpavakoothu shows.
About 21 earthen lamps are used to brighten the screen. It is astonishing to watch the stories showcased by the puppets demonstrating the movements with ease and perfection. The skill of the artists deserves tremendous applause and encouragement as they control the puppets with expertise. The languages used by the puppeteers are mostly Tamil and mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit. Traditional folk musical instruments are used to create live music during the show. Conch, cymbals, drums, percussions are mainly used by musicians.
The puppeteers of Tholpavakoothu need to undergo rigorous training on conducting the puppet shows. They require extensive knowledge of the mythological stories to be enacted in the shows. They have to be well versed with the stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas, Puranas, and many more ancient folk tales. The artists also need to master the local languages, Tamil, Malayalam, and Sanskrit.
The person who leads each shadow puppet show is known as the Pulavar in colloquial language. He is responsible for directing the entire performance. Pulavars are scholarly persons with deep knowledge of the ancient myths and legends of India. It is said that a person has to be trained for almost six to ten years to become a Pulavar.
Tholpavakuthu is famous in the districts of Malappuram, Thrissur, and Palakkad. There are over 3000 divine hymns or slokas which need to be acquired by the artists in order to perform the shows. The puppeteers are trained in classical music as well since they are the ones who sing themselves during the performance. In the modern era, the shows are now not only held in temples but in various venues in order to promote the art form. Themes of the puppetry shows have also undergone changes in order to capture the mind of the new generation.
The responsibility lies in us to preserve this wonderful ancient art form. It is a classic example where the cultures of Dravidians and the Aryans bond with each other. The tales portrayed by the puppets impart knowledge on the social and political norms of the rulers and legends in ancient times. Our ancient heritage is embedded within this art form and creates an identity in front of the world.