In conversation: Ramachandra Pulavar

In conversation: Ramachandra Pulavar

in Interview
Published on: 27 March 2017
Leading tolpavakoothu artist, Ramachandra Pulavar, speaks about the origins of the art form and the challenges it faces at present (Palakkad, October 14, 2015)

                                   Interview with   Ramachandra Pulavar

Sreedevi: Could you talk briefly about the history and background of tolpavakoothu?

Ramachandra Pulavar: Tolpavakoothu or shadow puppetry is the oldest art form in the world. In the early days of the earth, in the sunlight, the first human discovered the mobility of his limbs and it led to dance. The shadows thrown by their moving limbs led to the beginnings of shadow puppetry. In Asian and European countries, puppet plays were a source of intellectual stimulation for villagers. There are four different kinds of puppets─glove puppets, string puppets, rod puppets and shadow puppets. Of these, shadow puppetry is the most prominent. It can be found in any corner of the world. In ancient times, our ancestors, our community, the Saiva Vellalans, were devotees of Lord Siva, and were preachers. In the beginning the stories told in tolpavakoothu were those of local chieftains and kings.    

As I said, our ancestors were preachers too. They conducted religious discourses in temples. I will tell you about the myth behind it. Goddess Kali slew the powerful asura (demon) at the end of a fierce war. Ravana was killed by Rama at the same time. Kali cut off the head of the asura and roamed the land carrying it. Kali was hurt that everyone was so taken up with Rama killing Ravana that no one noticed her victory. She regretted that she couldn’t get to see the intense battle that everyone was talking about. So she went to her father, Lord Siva, and spoke of how she missed the battle that everyone was talking about. Siva then asked her to go and reside in the sacred place called Supparakam that later became Kerala. He also asked her to bless those who served her well and she would be able to watch a puppet play on the Rama-Ravana battle. The goddess obeyed Siva and came to reside in Kerala.

It is believed that Kamba Ramayana was written by Siva himself. He took birth as Kamban. Kamban was the royal poet in the Chola palace. He was the farm guard of a landlord called Kalingarayan in the Chola country. Now the king ordered Kamban and a poet called Ottakuthu to write down the story of Ramayana and present it before him in a month’s time, otherwise, they would be beheaded. Ottakuthu finished writing the Ramayana while Kamban grazed the cattle at the farm. He kept singing the story of the Ramayana but he never got down to writing it out. Soon the day came to present it before the king. In those days there would be a temple on the farms of all landlords. So on the eve of the crucial day Kamban lay down in the field in front of the temple of Goddess Saraswati and fell asleep. When the sun rose, he got up, and exclaimed, “Neram mudinjitallo ammal!” (Amma, It is morning!)What would he do now? He would soon lose his head. Just then he heard a voice from within the temple. ‘Ezhuti mudinjithe Kamba’ (I have finished writing, Kamba). It was Goddess Saraswati herself and she presented the palm-leaf script to Kamban. This is the Kamba Ramayana. It has 12,126 slokas.

Centuries ago, our ancestor, Chinna Thampi Pulavar, belonging to the Saiva Vellala community, the same one Kamban belonged to, had a divine call to prepare verses for a puppet play. He was a court poet. We belong to his community, the Saiva Vellala. He selected three out of every ten slokas from the Kamba Ramayana and prepared the text for puppet play. About 3,126 slokas. From Ramavataram to Pattabhishekam. That is the text, Adal pattu pavakoothu. Adal means to act. Pattu means relating to. It was not ‘tol pavakoothu’ in those days. It was ola pavakoothu. The puppets were made of ola, the leaves of palm trees. It had literature and music and entertained everyone from rich to poor, from upper class to lower class. The language is chenthamizhu (classical Tamil) easily understood by the people in those times. Earlier tolpavakoothu was performed in the whole of Palakkad district and in parts of Trissur and Malappuram districts in about 105 temples. Now it is being performed in about 87 Devi temples in the months from December till 10th June as part of the annual festival.


S: So for how many nights does a performance last at a time? What is the criterion of selecting the story? Is the temple where it is going to be performed a deciding factor?    

R.P.: The performance is spread over a duration of seven, fourteen or twenty one nights depending on the resources of the temple. In temples that are not well off financially, pavakoothu is performed for seven consecutive nights. That is because the devi wishes to see the Rama–Ravana battle. So the narration starts with the story of Setubandhan and finishes with Pattabhishekam on the seventh day. To arrange a tolpavakoothu performance it requires a substantial amount of money. Because there is musical accompaniment, there will have to be festivities, then the velichapadu (temple oracle)…Some temples even organize a kalampattu performance. If the temple is moderately well off, the performance for 14 nights is arranged starting with Panchavati. Then there is the 21-night performance organized by wealthy temples.     

If it is seven days, the story begins from Yudhakanda: Sethu bandhanam, Pradhama yudham, Kumbhakarnamoksham, Athikayamoksham, Indrajitmoksham, Ravanamoksham and Pattabhishekam. For 14 days, the story will start from Panchavati, Bali-Sugreevayudham, Sitapaharanam and Yudhakandam. Twenty-one days’ performance will start from Ramaavataram to Pattabhishekam. Our temple, Aryankavu organizes 21 days of koothu every year. Our troupe, Kavalappara troupe (or Koonathara troupe), performs there every year. The other major troupes were Mathoor, Puthoor, Kavalappara and Kuthanoor. Recently a group left our troupe and formed another troupe, Palappuram troupe. The performers are called Pulavars. The word Pulavar means scholar. Pulavars played a big part in the intellectual development of village folk in those days.  


S: The stories are not decided by the troupes, but by how much the temple can afford, right?

R.P.:Yes, as I said earlier, it depends upon the financial capacities of the temple. People have money now, but they don’t have mental peace. So they are ready to sponsor a tolpavakoothu performance in the temple in the belief that such an offering to the goddess will bring them peace and prosperity. When we pray before the sanctorum in the temple all our concentration is directed towards a particular god or goddess. But in a koothumaadam there is the presence of Lord Ganesha, Rama, Sita or Lakshmi and the lamp symbolizing the goddess. So four or five gods are invoked at once. The priest chants mantras inside the sanctorum while the Pulavar sings and narrates the Ramayana to please the goddess. The lamp is left burning in the koothumaadam long after the performance is over. Our elders say that Devi remains in the maadam and recites the stories that she heard to herself.


S: Does any group specialise in any particular story?

R.P.: As I said earlier, this is based on the Ramayana. Sometimes for a particular section we call artists from other troupes to perform. For instance, suppose we are going to perform Garadupathu tonight. So we decide to bring in someone like Prabhakara Pulavar since he is skilled in its narration. To counter him we bring in another equally good scholar from another troupe. The two debaters wouldn’t know who their opponent is till they go on stage.  


S: How do you differentiate between the groups?

R.P.: Our text, Adal Pattu is a selection of verse from the Ramayana. Each troupe adds its own interpretation of the verses.  Then there is the presence of Vidushakan in puppet plays too.  This character is not found in the Kamba Ramayana. Vidushakan’s main purpose is to entertain the audience as well as to make them think. He comments on the narrative and interjects with critical questions. He is a prominent member of Ravana’s royal court and has the freedom to enter everywhere, even in Ravana’s marital chamber, express his opinion, and make fun of or criticise anyone. Vidushakan is called Kudakkaran in the puppet play. There were performers who were skilled in a particular subject or story and its interpretation. My father, Krishnankutti Pulavar, was a scholar in philosophy, Tharkkam, the Vedas, Sastras etc. and could confidently face anyone on stage.          


S: You were talking about your father earlier. Could you talk about his contributions to this art form?

R.P.: As a child I had the good fortune to travel with him to various places. In 1968 his troupe performed for the first time outside temples at the World Malayalam Conference in Trivandrum. I was eight years old then. After that, in 1972, at Smt. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s initiative his troupe performed in Delhi. She played a significant role in the revival of this form. We went to Russia in 1979 to participate in an international puppetry festival. There we performed using oil lamps, sticking to the tradition. After that we got a chance to stage many public performances. Venu. G supported us greatly. In fact, Kamaladeviji asked him to lead the troupe when it went to Russia for the first time. He was then teaching at National School of Drama in Delhi. He played a significant role in the revival of the art form.   

Before that tolpavakoothu was performed only in temples as a ritual. So when our group performed outside there was a lot of criticism. Everybody criticised my father. But he welcomed the idea of performing in public spaces as it made the art more popular. During his time, the performance suffered as the there was a shortage of performers to manipulate the puppets. So the emphasis was more on the recital or koothu. In order to make it more popular he emphasised the movement of puppets. Stories were selected keeping this in mind.


S: Did the structure of performance or the style of puppets change in any way when you began to perform outside?

R.P.: Puppets of Kerala and Orissa are black and white while the rest of the states have coloured puppets. Ours is dark because it is made of deer skin and inside temples only deer skins are allowed. Now the killing of deer is prohibited. So we don’t make puppets out of deer skin now. Even if we add colours to the puppets it is not visible because of the thickness of the skin. Our Kavalappara troupe add colours to the puppets. We use natural colours from different plants. We use mainly red, yellow and similarly we follow colour patterns used in Kathakali and mural paintings. Another troupe in Palappuram also use colours for their puppets. Inside the temples only puppets made of deer skin are permitted. So different troupes like the Mathoor, Puthur and Palappuram still play with the old puppets. Most of them have become damaged over the years. We now make puppets out of buffalo and goat skins and have kept aside the old, damaged puppets. We don t use damaged ones as it is believed that performing with broken ones is not propitious.


S: We were talking about the colours of the puppets. Can you now tell us about their style and the process of making them?

R.P.: Earlier the Pulavars would not touch the animal skins that are used to make the puppets. The skins were processed by people belonging to lower castes.   


S: Like in Padayani, were there specific castes who were involved in the processing of skins?

R.P.: Yes. Castes like Karuvan, Aasari…My father used to talk about one Karuvan Krishnan who used to sit in our house, process the skins and prepare the puppets. Gradually as time changed we too began to make the puppets ourselves. In my grandfather’s time after the skin was processed, holy water was sprinkled over it. Afterwards we could work with it. This puppet (showing a puppet) is Lord Rama. The cloth worn by him is called veeralipattu. It is worn only by kings. The embellishments in the lower half of the body are typical of royal clothes worn by characters like Rama, Ravana, Bali etc. And then the ornaments too are specific for each character. Each ornament and design has a name. The mudras or hand gestures found in classical dances can be seen here too. No matter what the puppet is, whether it is Rama or Ravana, the hand gesture will be the same─the chin mudra (demonstrating the mudra by pressing the tips of the thumb and forefinger together and keeping the other fingers straight). It gives out the message of the Ramayana. Peace for all. Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu.

 It will take almost a month to make a puppet and colour it. The eyes are drawn only at the end. After the eyes are drawn it is believed that the puppet comes to life. Then holy water is brought from the temple and sprinkled over it. Now they have sanctity and are ready to go on stage. Damaged puppets are not taken on stage. They are set afloat in the river. We want to make a museum, for that purpose we have kept our damaged puppets safely. Our father has told us not to perform with damaged puppets and so our Kavalppara troupe does not use such puppets.   


S: Do you make your puppets here in your house?

R.P.: In my father’s time puppets were made at his ancestral house that is close by. Now I have small theatre here in my house. My father wished to popularize this art form all over the world. Though he got a National Award, he died before he could fulfil his wish. I worked as a postmaster and before that I taught puppetry in a school in Bombay (Mumbai). After my father’s death in 2000, I resigned, and since then have been working towards fulfilling my father’s wish. I also wanted to bring new generations to this art form. Only for four months a year when the annual temple festivals went on did the performers had stages to perform. They were out of job for the rest of the year. So we decided to create a small theatre here where tolpavakoothu performance could be held every day. The theatre can accommodate about 50 persons.


S: Other than the stories from the Ramayana, you are now performing new stories too. Can you talk about your contemporary stories?

R.P.: The Kendra Sangeeta Nataka Akademi asked us what we wanted. We said we didn’t have enough stages. Puppetry has a permanent theatre only in the temples of Kerala. They don’t have even that in other states. The Akademi gives us a nominal grant every year to prepare new scripts for puppet plays. Earlier we had done a performance on Hindu-Muslim unity. That was a big hit. Then we started preparing new scripts using the grant.
We prepared a narration based on all the major events in Gandhiji’s life. It was my father’s wish. But he couldn’t complete it. We performed it on stage. Then we did a narration based on Jesus’s life, stories from the Panchatantra and also on social issues like AIDS, deforestation etc. At present we are doing Shakespeare’s plays. We also incorporate the use of technology like the projector etc. We select the story according to the demand. We get a lot of demands to present Jesus’s life in churches. In this way the artist too can get a livelihood throughout the year.


S: The nature of the audience must have changed as you brought it out of the temples.  

R.P.: Nowadays with the emergence of TV and new media most of the temple art forms and rituals have lost audience. In Kerala, pavakoothu is prominent in the districts like Trissur, Palakkad and Malappuram, Padayani is prevalent in and around Tiruvananthapuram and Theyyamthara is practised in Malabar. All these art forms are performed for goddess Kali and draws inspiration from the Ramayana. All of them have lost their audience. Now TV entertains everyone within the comforts of home. A traditional tolpavakoothu performance in the temple requires the audience to sit through the whole night. Moreover, the nuclear family set-up and busy jobs are huge deterrents.  

Then there is a huge shortage of puppet players. Earlier there was a whole troupe to carry out the performance. For the temple committee, the main concern is the grandeur of the annual festival. The tolpavakoothu is just another ritual to be performed. They get money from the sponsor, but it doesn’t reach the players. They are given only a nominal amount. So the committee engage only about two artists to do a performance. Without a sufficient number of performers the puppets cannot be manipulated. So they are still and the performers mechanically recite the verse. Such a performance will naturally fail to attract audience. That is why we decided to perform contemporary stories with puppets of animals, birds etc. that are very mobile and also let us encapsulate the story in an hour’s duration. Such a performance that is not very long and involves moving puppets attracts the audience. 


S: Women are not allowed to perform inside koothumaadam. Even the women characters in the Ramayana are out of their reach. How do you view this?

R.P.: Inside the sanctum sanctorum the temple priest performs the rituals to propitiate the goddess. We also perform in the koothumaadam to please the goddess. The koothumaadam has the same sanctity that the sanctorum has. Women are not allowed inside the sanctorum. Likewise they are not allowed to perform in the koothumaadam too. Also, earlier, women didn’t go out much. But I think, in the present scenario women should be allowed to perform. I have been banned from performing in at least two koothumaadams because I allow women to perform with me on public platforms. Here every year a tolpaavakoothu camp is conducted. The central government gives stipends to the aspiring performers. We put out advertisements in the papers. Even then male students are hard to find. On the contrary, women, especially young mothers, come and enrol. They drop off their children to school and come here to learn. The main attraction is the stipend, of course. They want to learn puppet-making. They wonder if they would be allowed to perform in the koothumaadams and how much they would earn from this art.  How could I refuse them?  But if I allow them to perform I won’t get stages in the temples. My stand is that let them stay away from the stage during the seven days of menstruation. On other days they should be allowed to perform. Let them do the female characters in the Ramayana like Sita, Surppanakha etc. But not inside the koothumaadams, only on public platforms. I am not here to subvert the tradition. My wife and my daughter, Rajita, perform with me outside the temples. Yes, I have been criticized much for this.


S: You mentioned that that those who enrol in the annual tolpavakoothu camp are paid stipends. Are there artists from other communities and castes who are ready to learn this?

R.P.: Yes. These days, people from low castes too come forward to learn this. Only artists from upper castes are allowed to perform in the koothumaadams. There was a man, Ponnumani Pulavar, who belonged to the ezhava caste. He was 90 years old when he died three years ago. He stood outside the koothumaadams and learnt all the stories from Ramavataram to Pattabhishekam. But he was very unhappy as he was not allowed to perform in the temples. When my father heard about him he took him in his troupe and let him perform with him.      


S: Is the new generation interested in the art?

R.P.: Yes, they do come forward to learn. But they are interested in puppet-making, not in learning the art. They make puppets, market them as wall-hangings, lamp-shades, key chains etc. They earn well. We participate in puppet exhibitions all over the world. Last month I went to Muscat for an exhibition-cum-sale. They are a good source of income. The money thus earned is directed to running the theatre and doing the performances. So there is more money in selling the puppets than in the actual performance now.     


S: So when you focus more on the making and marketing of puppet-artefacts, do you feel that focus on the koothu or the performance is diminishing?

R.P.: In Dharmavaram in Andhra Pradesh there are about 450 puppeteers. They focus more on making puppets and selling them than in puppet-play. From early morning they, including the women in their households, engage in making puppets. My father used to say that he got only 60 percentage of knowledge from his father. I got only 40 percentage of knowledge from my father. Because as I said, tolpavakoothu that used be 10 hours long is now condensed to five hours in the temples. So that much knowledge is lost. The problem that the tolpavakoothu performers face is that of the odd timings of their performance in the temples. The performance start from 11:00 at night and go on till past three. That is the third yama of the night when the goddess wants to watch the Rama-Ravana battle. The night is divided into four yamas. The sandya (dusk) yama that begins from 6:00 in the evening to 9:00 at night, then the manushya (human) yama from 9:00 to 11:00, the third yama belongs to gods and goddesses from 12:00 to 3:30. After that, it is the Saraswati yama till 6:00 in the morning. My father used to say that we should perform till 3:30 in the morning. We have almost no audience now in the temples because of the timings. We have been trying to think of ways to change the timings without breaking the tradition. As of now two temples have changed the timings. We start from 6:00 or 7:00 and finish off at 11:00 or 12:00. The performance will present all elements, singing, narration, music, moving puppets…Maybe the other temples will follow suit.


S: Is there any increase in the number of spectators?

R.P.: Yes, definitely. But I fear that like in Andhra, this increased focus on puppet-making and marketing will endanger the future of the art. I always tell my students that it all started in the devi temples and that they should never abandon performing in the temples. I genuinely feel that as long the name of Lord Rama is alive in this world, this art form will live.    


S: How do the researchers and aspiring artists from abroad and the financial help from the government contribute to the growth of this art?

R.P.: The art of tolpavakoothu is not appreciated in Kerala. They look down on this art and think that it is meant for children. In fact we are respected outside Kerala and in other parts of the world. I have performed in about 40 countries so far.  Here we don’t have a place for traditional art forms and nobody appreciates it. We don’t have an organization for us here. We all are members of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette- the International Puppetry Association), based out of France. The Europeans have great admiration and respect for this art form. Actually the headquarters should be here in India because it originated here. From here it spread to other countries like Russia, China, Bali, Siam etc. The puppet plays in other states also narrate in Marathi. The performers from Andhra, Karnataka etc. narrate in Marathi. One probable reason is that puppetry is said to have originated in Maharashtra. But the puppetry tradition in Kerala is different. I lived in Sawantwadi in Maharashtra from 1982-87. The Marathi puppet players might have migrated to other parts of India and spread their art there. The artists who were influenced by this art might have changed the style and script to suit their environment. Thought the players form Andhra, Karnataka etc. narrate in Marathi the styles of their puppets are different. The first film in India Raja Harichandra, directed by Dabasaheb Phalke (1913) was hugely influenced by the puppet play in Maharashtra.       


S: Could you talk about the teaching methods and the technique of narration?

R.P.: Earlier every art was learnt in the traditional way. The guru-sishya relationship was strong then. The education began with the sishya offering dakshina (offering) to the guru. Betel-nut on a palm-leaf. We still follow that ritual of seeking blessing in every art. The classes began very early, around four in the morning. We had to recite verses and learn them by heart. We had to learn at least four or five songs every day. Otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to have food that day. It was said that once a song was written down it should be recited 400 times. Then only would we be able to recall it in an instant. If we had to learn a four-line verse, not only we had to learn it from the first line to the last but also we had to learn to recite it backwards, that is, from the last line to the first. The students would sit on mats spread on floors. In those days the floors would be caked with cow dung. Thus we had to learn to recite 3,126 verses. Then there were the subtexts, the interpretations, matters pertaining to life etc. One should have at least five years of learning before he debuted in the koothumaadam. So those learning years were very tough. If you missed class for even a day you would find it difficult to keep up with the others. And then you had to gain experience by performing in koothumaadams. We call it maadaparichayam, experience gained from performing in koothumaadam. A beginner would not be allowed to recite. By the way, in those days the performers would not sit during their performance. They held on to a length of rope hanging from the ceiling and recited for hours. There was no mike then but their voice could be heard miles away. It would be quiet all around. The koothumaadam would be packed with people. The king at the front, behind him the audience seated as per the caste hierarchy. The lower castes were not allowed inside the koothumaadam. They would listen to the narration from a long distance. The kalari should be six feet in height, 42 feet in length and 18 feet in breadth. So the beginner would quietly listen to his master’s narration and take down notes. When he gained enough experience and became proficient, the king would declare him to be a Pulavar. Nowadays every performer declares himself one. Now koothu is performed in temples, but the young generation just read out from the text. They do not know anything beyond the written words.


S: Could you talk about the technique of narration?

R.P.: The procession of sponsors accompanied by percussion music, velichapadu, the performers and the villagers would circumambulate the temple and proceed to the koothumaadam. They would circumambulate the maadam once, throw rice and bless the performers. This custom is called koothumaadam kottikayarukka.  Before the oil-lamp is lit, there is a special recital called kalari chinthu (song). This is not done by the puppet players. There is another set of percussion players who perform kalari chinthu. Then there is invocation to Lord Ganesh. The beginning goes like this aa…o…re…(Singing).  Knowledge of all living and non-living creatures and of this whole universe is contained in these three words. The singing is accompanied by percussion music. (Recites the invocation to Lord Ganesha) Earlier music was played inside the koothumaadam. But it was lost for a while. I brought music back into koothumaadam. I structured the music with a mix of folk and semi-classical and introduced it on the stage.


S: The verses were sung in the tradition of folk music before?

R.P.: Yes. But I changed it. But no one really knows how it was sung earlier. There was no recording then. The knowledge was handed down to the next generation orally. I introduced semi- classical too. When sung in this way the audience find it easier to understand. There are all types of emotions in the narration. For instance, there is a scene where Rama prays to Lord Varuna to help him cross the sea to reach Lanka. (recites).

This recital is a request. I recited in under a minute. One can recite it for four or forty hours. Such is the knowledge of a Pulavar.  

Then there is hasyam or humour that is not found in the Kamba Ramayana. For example, Ravana calls Hanuman “Eda kuranga…” (eda is a way of addressing a younger person, kuranga means monkey).

Hanuman then retorts.

A-da ta-da-tu cheyta nee

Undernathan Deviye

Vi-da-ta-da-tu poma-da

Veena-da-stu Pokumo

Chilati choozhu Lankaye

Chu-da-ta-da-tu Pome-da

E-da po-da Ravana

So Hanuman counters Ravana’s eda with a deluge of da…s.

This verse is not found in Kamba Ramayana. This was the contribution of our ancestors.

Then there is sorrow. And there is sringara. For example, the scene where Ravana approaches a captive Sita. (recites).

In the beginning of the story, there is a scene where Goddess Earth approaches Lord Indra and informs him about her problems and the need to kill demons like Ravana. Along with Goddess Earth the Devas also went to Brahma to find a solution to their problems. They worship him and seek his help. (recites)


S: Who perform in your group?

R.P.: My father, Krishnakutty Pulavar, had many students. My sons Rajeev and Rahul perform with me. My daughter, Rajitha, also has learnt pavakoothu. She is married to my sister’s son. Whenever I call her, she comes to perform with us. My sister used to sing in All India Radio when my father was alive. My wife, Rajalakshmi too is involved in this. About 40 people from my village are engaged in making puppet-artefacts with me. I have about 15 students now.