In conversation with tolpavakoothu artist K. Ramaswamy Pulavar
Ramachandra Pulavar: Your father started the Puthussery troupe. Could you elaborate on how and when he started it?
K. Ramaswamy Pulavar: My father (Kanna Chettiar) had three daughters and wanted a son. So as per the advice of the then senior tolpavakoothu artists he decided to give a performance as an offering to the deity in the nearby Bhagavathy temple (Mariamman temple). I was born in the next year. He built a koothumaadam in the temple precincts and thereafter his troupe performed there every year.
R.P.: How long ago did this happen?
K.R.: I am now 62 years old. So it must have started about 63 years ago.
R.P.: Which are the sections from Ramayana that your group performs here?
K.R.: We perform the stories from Panchavati to Pattabhishekam for 14 days during the festival.
R.P.: How did you learn?
K.R.: My father taught me. There were five to six of us learning from him at the time. They would come here to our house at night.
R.P.: Puthen veedu was a prominent family at the time.
K.R.: Yes, my father would wind up his work in the fields by evening and wait for his students. He would make us write two slokas each day and explain the meanings. The class would go on till 11 or 12 at night.
R.P.: Earlier you performed for seven days, didn’t you?
K.R.. Yes, then we began to perform for 14 days at a time.
R.P.: Do you make puppets?
K.R.: We got puppets initially from Koonathara Krishnankutty Pulavar’s troupe. They used to come here and perform too.
R.P.: Can you name some of the prominent performers from the Kavalappara (Koonathara) troupe?
K.R.: Krishankutty Pulavar, Palappuram Annamala Pulavar, Ravunni Nair, Sankaran Nair, Kunjappay Pulavar etc. are some of them.
R.P.: Could you describe the learning process?
K.R.: Everyday we were given two slokas which we were to have learned by heart the next day. The meanings and interpretations were learnt later. After I completed my Class 10, my father asked me to put an end to my studies. I was to be a tolpavakoothu performer and when there was no performance, I was to tend to the fields. So I started to write the verses down and learn them. I started with Yudha Kandam.
R.P.: Who were the other students who were learning with you at the time?
K.R.: There were M. Ramaswamy, Velayudhan, Ponnuswamy, Mariappan and my brother, Narayanan. Narayanan is no more now. Then we began to perform.
R.P.: Apart from the Puthussery koothumaadam, where else did you go to perform?
K.P.: Thachappan Mannadiar invited us to perform...
R.P.: Oh, I remember him. He was such a huge man. He was with the Kuthanoor troupe. His voice was so loud that it could be heard almost four kilometres away.
K.P.: Yes, he had performed here too. He wouldn’t sit while performing. There would be a length of rope hanging from the rope and he would hang on to that and recite in a booming voice.
R.P.: He was with the Kuthanoor troupe. Is there any one left in the troupe?
K.R.: There is no one left to perform in the Kuthanoor and Mathoor troupes. Prabhakara Pulavar is the only member left in the Puthanoor troupe. No one is willing to learn and preserve the tradition. The existing groups are Koonathara, Puthussery and Palappuram.
R.P.: Which are the other temples that you perform in regularly?
K.R.: Kunnamppully kaavu, Kundalassery Chirakkal kaavu, Nenmara Thiruvazhiyadu, Nalleppilly and Pattanchery.
R.P.: How many are there in your troupe?
K.R.: We have five performers in our troupe.
R.P.: What is the response of the audience to your performances now?
K.R.: Everyone likes tolpavakoothu. There is a dearth of viewers now. Earlier there used to be a large audience.
R.P.: So if there is no audience, then why do you perform?
K.R.: Even if there is no audience we have to perform it for the goddess. That is our duty. The Pulavars have to perform it every year in the temples for the goddess.
R.P.: Tolpavakoothu is based on Kamba Ramayana. How many slokas from Kamba Ramayana are used for the performance?
K.R.: There are about 12,126 verses in Kamba Ramayana. We don’t use all the verses. Basically we rely on Adal pattu for the performance.
R.P.: What is the Adal pattu?
K.R.: Adal means acting and pattu means relating to.
R.P.: Adal pattu has verses that are not in Kamba Ramayana. It is believed that they were added later by the Pulavars. What is the story behind it?
K.R.: Yes, it is said that in olden days the Pulavars themselves made some changes in the verses and modified their style to suit their performance.
R.P.: Tolpavakoothu used to have a significant audience, and the Pulavars were highly respected. Do you think they are still accorded the same respect?
K.R.: Yes I think so. The madapulavar (head Pulavar) is in charge of the koothumaadam. He conducts the puja in the koothumaadam and lights the lamp at the beginning of the performance. The other Pulavars carry out the performance.
R.P.: Nataka vazhipadu is an important source of income for the performers apart from what they are paid by the temple authorities or the sponsors. Could you explain the term nataka vazhipadu?
K.R.: Lots of people from all over come to the temple and sponsor the performance. They consider it as an offering to the goddess, to seek her blessings and protection from ill health or misfortune and for being blessed with children or jobs or a wedding. They believe that once the performance is carried out the goddess will be very pleased and shower her blessings on them.
R.P.: So have you heard of such true incidents where the devotees’ wishes were fulfilled after they sponsored the performance?
K.R.: Oh, many. I remember several such incidents. When a marriage cannot be fixed or some other such crises in life occur, they offer to sponsor a koothu performance in the temple. Soon after their wishes are fulfilled.
R.P.: Now the koothu has extended to a duration of 14 or 21 days. But with the size of the audience getting smaller, what is the point in increasing the duration?
K.R.: Though the size of the audience is getting smaller, the devotees want the koothu to be performed every year without fail. So more and more people come forward to sponsor koothu as an offering. Though that doesn’t translate into an increased number of spectators.
R.P.: Women are not allowed inside the koothumaadam. What do you have to say about that? Can’t they be allowed to perform considering the fact that fewer and fewer men are coming forward to learn koothu?
K.R.: There is no rule that ban women from performing. But traditionally it has been the practice.
R.P.: What if in future there are not enough male performers?
K.R.: I don’t think that will happen. We can always get performers. The problem is, the koothu are performed only for three or four months of the annual festive season. The rest of the year the performers have to find some other means of livelihood.
R.P.: So what do you think will be the future of this art form?
K.R.: If they are given an adequate allowance and support by the government and the temple committees, I think the younger generation would definitely come forward to learn.
R.P.: Earlier when there was a seven-day performance in a particular temple, the performers would camp in the village for its duration. There would be a lot of discussions and all the performers would benefit intellectually. It is not the case now. The performers prefer to return home after the day’s performance. So their chances to enhance their scholarship are limited. So the koothu performances have become less engaging and it is reflected in the size of audience.
R.P.: (Holding up a puppet) This is the puppet of Srirama. Did you make this puppet? Can you tell us how it is different from the puppets of other troupes?
K.R.: The puppets of different troupes like the Mathoor troupe, Puthoor troupe, Kavalappara (Koonathara) troupe etc. are different in their design and embellishments. See, this puppet has lot of patterns and decorations. We follow Koonathara Krishnankutty Pulavar’s style. Our puppets have got more designs than those of other troupes.
R.P.: How do you differentiate between the puppets of various characters?
K.R.: We can identify each character from the jewellery, costumes and the posture.
R.P.: Can you say something about the mudras seen in the puppets?
K.R.: (lifting the arm of the puppet and showing the mudra) This is called the chin mudra.
R.P.: How many puppets have you made here?
K.R.: I have made more than 100 puppets. There are all made from deerskin.
R.P.: Why is deerskin preferred?
K.P.: In ancient times our sages considered deerskin to be sacred. But no one uses it now. Also, the killing of deer is prohibited by law.
R.P.: Can you recite a verse in the old way─ singing and then explaining it?
K.R.: I will recite a verse from Asokavanam. Sita is held captive in Asokavanam.
R.P.: 'Asoka vanam' means a vanam or forest filled with Asoka trees.
K.R.: Hanuaman comes in search of Sita and finally finds her in Asokavanam. He gives her the wedding ring of Srirama. This is the context. (Recites and explains)
R.P.: Can you recite another verse in a different style?
K.R.: (recites). It is a battle scene where Jatayu and Ravana exchange hot words.
R.P.: The language used is Tamil, isn’t it?
K.R.: Yes. Palakkad shares a border with Tamil Nadu. It was earlier part of Tamil Nadu (editor’s note: Madras Presidency) . Therefore everyone here were familiar with Tamil.
R.P.: So the language used in the verses is chentamizhu (classical Tamil). Now it is not easily understood by everyone. The verses are in Tamil but we could add the interpretations in Malayalam so that they are easily understood. What do you think?
K.R.: Yes, the interpretations could be in Malayalam.
R.P.: Similarly, about the timing of the performance in temples. The koothu will start around nine at night and go on till early morning. Instead of that, would an early start and close attract more viewers? What do you think?
K.R.: Yes, if we start early and finish by 11 or so we will have a larger audience. Earlier the performance would get over early in the morning. The killing of Ravana took place as dawn broke.A performance that lasted for 10 hours got reduced to five and now it will be further shortened to three.
R.P.: Is there anyone else performing in your family?
K.R.: My son has learnt koothu. Now he is in Mumbai. He is very interested in this art. He performs with me whenever he comes home.
R.P.: So there is hope for the future.
K.R.: Yes. Then also I have some students who come here to learn koothu. I teach them the verses and their explanations.
R.P.: What do you think about the future of this art form?
K.R.: If the present situation continues, this art will not survive.
R.P.: The current set of performers read from the text instead of reciting, don’t they?
K.P.: Yes, they just read out the text.
R.P.: So anyone can perform. Not much training is required in the present context. But it naturally makes the performance less entertaining. That may be one of the reasons there is this huge lack of viewers now.
K.P.: Maybe. We have to train young performers. There are several of them interested in learning koothu. But we have to choose the right persons and train them systematically. Only then will tolpavakoothu survive.
R.P.: Have you performed in other public spaces apart from the temples?
K.R.: Yes. In 1979 we went to Russia. We performed in Tashkent. Krishnankutty Pulavar and Venu G. were in the troupe. We performed in Spain. We performed in various cities like Delhi, Bombay, and closer home, Thiruvananthapuram as part of Onam and other festivals.
R.P.: Do you get any financial assistance or pension from the government?
K.R.: No, I don't.
R.P.: Thank you.