Tholpavakoothu (leather Puppetry)

Ramachandra Pulavar, a life dedicated to sustain an ancient artform

N V Ravindranathan Nair

Mastering the art of taming light and shadow K K Ramachandra Pulavar , the doyen of the  ancient ritualistic art form of  Tholpavakoothu  or Leather puppetry is retaining a glorious tradition  , his ancestors were keeping alive for the last 13 generations. The country is indebted to this man for preserving this artform which is  practiced mainly in the Palakkadu and Malappuram   districts of Kerala.

Ramachandra Pulavar, son of K L Krishnan kutty Pulavar , one of the pioneers of Leather puppetry  has completed half a century in performing this artform devotionally at the Koothumadom, the specially erected theatres at the Devi / Kaali  temple premises. It may be interesting to note that Tholppavakoothu is the world’s first ever art form based on light and shadow.  Narrating stories from Kambaramayana , the  Tamil epic written by the poet Kambar, the  artistes attract the imagination of the audience with  beautiful depiction of  story accompanied by puppet dance and music.

Kerala’s own Pavakoothu however has its  counterparts in  Asian countries like China and Indonesia.  I India, Maharasthra, Orisssa and south Indian states have artistes performing this art form.

Ramachandra Pualvar, a  Padmashree awardee and winner of Kendra Lalithakala Academy and Kerala State Lalitha Kala academy awards , while speaking to Sadgamaya News , said there were very limited number of artistes to perform this artform.

“We have the right to stage tholpavakoothu in 85 Devi temples in the Palakakdu Malappuram districts. Today I have programmes booked at five temples. As its impossible to attend all these places at a time, I depute my son and disciples to perform in those temples” he said.

“If we strictly stick to the tradition, we may not be able to bring more enthusiasts to the Koothumadom. In the past,  the performance would last for ten hours. But now I have rescheduled the  timings with presenting the Koothu from 7 Pm to 11 Pm. By doing so we can attract a good  crowd to watch the performance” he points out. Though Ramachandra Pulavar could attract a sizeable crowd, in most of the venues, the artistes perform  in front of very few people.

Though the text of the stories told in the tholpavakooth is in Tamil, it has now been prepared in such a way to enable the audience to grasp its meaning .  In order to sustain this art form and to find a sustainable means of livelihood, this blessed artiste and his family are engaged in preparing puppetry miniatures as dolls or key chains as  exquisite handicrafts .

Several students, researchers and tourists from far and wide visit him and the theatre set up on the first floor of his house at Koonathara, Shornur. His entire family comprising wife K N Rajalakshmi, Sons Rajeev and daughter Rajitha are putting  their acts together to retain this classical art form.  To make it more sustainable for them and to help retain this glorious legacy , Ramachandra Pulavar has also been staging it on secular platforms outside the boundaries of the Koothumadam  telling stories other than the traditional ones.