In conversation: Viswanatha Panikker

In conversation: Viswanatha Panikker

in Interview
Published on: 27 March 2017
Tolpavakoothu performer, Viswanatha Panikker, speaks to another performer, Ramachandra Pulavar about the ancient art form of Kerala (Malayalam)

Viswanatha Panikker in conversation with Ramachandra Pulavar

Ramachandra Pulavar: Can you tell us about the origin of tolpavakoothu, the stories you have heard from your ancestors?

Vishvanatha Panikker: No, I don’t remember much, but I know that traditionally we perform tolpavakoothu in certain temples as an offering.


R.P.: Do you know why tolpavakoothu is performed only in temples in Thrissur, Malappuram and Palakkad, and not in other parts of Kerala? Is there a particular reason behind it?

V.P.: I don't know why, but not all Bhagavathy temples have tolpavakoothu performance included in their festivals. Tolpavakoothu is performed as a vazhipadu (an offering to the goddess) to protect ourselves from enemies, and to escape from the curses and evils of three previous births. Tolpavakoothu is originally performed for the devi (Goddess Kali) to alleviate the curse on her for killing Darika, the evil demon.


R.P.: Does the devi bear the curse for killing Darika?

V.P.: Yes, she has to bear the curse. She will have to attain peace and be free from the anger that still remains with her even after killing the demon. So it is believed that listening to koothu will remove the curse. So she will come and sit on the structure around the banyan tree in the koothumaadam to watch the koothu. That is the belief behind this offering.


R.P.: Every temple has a banyan tree at the front. Devas and asuras are believed to be sitting on the tree. It is believed that the devi is present in the koothumaadam to watch the performance and it will remove her curse.

V.P.: Yes, yes. Similarly other rituals like kalampattu, kalavela are also performed as various offerings for being blessed with children, good harvest or for escaping the bad deeds of our previous births.


R.P.: How did our community, the Panikker community, start performing Tolpavakoothu? Traditionally the Panikkers are astrologers. But how did your ancestors enter into this?

V.P.: When koothu was not performed in temples regularly, the Panikkers of the region got the right to perform. As per the belief, if koothu is not performed every year it would bring misfortune for the desom. Someone will have to stay up all night and perform koothu.


R.P.: So your ancestors must have had the knowledge of performing tolpavakoothu?

V.P.: Yes, 10 previous generations must have known this. The Panikkers did not introduce koothu in the temples. It was the decision of the temple authorities and prominent people to allow the Panikkers to perform tolpavakoothu in the koothumadam annually. So our ancestors were given the right to the koothumaadam and we learnt from the ancestors.  

It is because of Devi’s blessing that we have continued till now. Every year, on the fifth day of the Malayalam month Medam (April) our family perform during the festival at Mulayankavu temple. It is our duty that we continue without any difficulty.


R.P.: Where else do you have the right to perform?

V.P.: In the temples like Keezhur kalikavu and Pookottu kalikavu near our family/ancestral house in Munoorkootu. In Keezhur kalikavu, the koothu is recited by someone called Ramakrishnan and Subhramanyan. Sometimes I perform the mukhavura or the introduction.


R.P.: Earlier you used to recite the mukhavura and narrate the story as well. But nowadays since no one from your community is willing to learn it or perform it fully, you perform only the mukhavura.

V.P.: Yes, nowadays no one has the time to learn koothu fully. So whatever we learnt from ancestors we pass on to the next generation orally.


R.P.: What is generally the size of the koothumaadam? Why is it called kalari instead of koothumadam?    

V.P.: Kalari usually refers to a Panikker’s establishment. We don’t put names to our house. It is believed that Lord Parasuman measured 42 feet and handed over its ownership to the Panikkers. The presiding deity in kalari is Parasurama and it is believed that the kalari is generally of 42 feet.


R.P.: So is Parasurama worshipped in all the kalaris?

V.P.: Yes, all the kalaris of the Panikker community worship Parasurama and most of them measure 42 feet. Both kalari and koothumaadam are of the same size.


R.P.: Can you tell us about the aya pudava, the white cloth that we use while performing?

V.P.: It is believed that the devas inhabit the sky, they live above the human beings. The black signifies patalam (the underworld where asuras live). The white signifies the sky and the earth, while the black signifies the earth and patalam. The puppet show is seen on the white part.


R.P.: It is believed that the war between Rama and Ravana was waged on both sky and the earth. So probably, the white curtain and the black space symbolise that too.

V.P.: Yes.


R.P.: Earthen lamps are used in some places, whereas in other places, lamps are lit inside the hollow of coconuts cut in half. Generally 21 oil lamps are lit. What is the significance of the number 21?

V.P.: Nothing particular. It also depends on how many days koothu is performed. In Munnorkootu the koothu is performed for 18 days, so only 18 oil lamps are lit. If it is performed for 21 days, then there will be as many lights. The lamps are for the gods and goddesses. The lamp is brought from the thookku vilakku (hanging brass lamp) in front of the sanctum sanctorum to light these oil lamps. So it is as if we are welcoming the goddess to the koothumaadam.  


R.P.: Now about the puppets. Did your family own puppets?

V.P.: We had puppets earlier; they all were damaged over the years.


R.P.: What is the material used in making puppets?

V.P.: Deer skin.


R.P.: Why is deer skin used?

V.P.: It is believed that deer skin is the best.


R.P.: Are we supposed to kill deer then?

V.P.: Both deer skin and cow’s skin are considered the best. Skin of other animals are not used. Deer represents the character Marichan in Ramayana. Marichan came as a deer to abduct Sita. There is an association with deer in the story.


R.P.: What was the remuneration like earlier?

V.P.: Earlier the remuneration was low, but it was enough for our needs. But now the pay is more, but it is not sufficient.


R.P.: Can you tell us about the learning process of tolpavakoothu?

V.P.: I learnt mukhavura where both Ganapati and Saraswati are invoked.


R.P.: Who was your guru?

V.P.: I learnt from my father. My father was Kesava Panikker and my grandfather was Rama Panikker.


R.P.: Did they know koothu as well as astrology?

V.P.: Yes. With the emergence of radio and television all these art forms have been on the decline.


R.P.: Yes, true. Before that, different art forms like pavakoothu, Kutiyattam etc. were the only source of entertainment. Coming back to your training, can you elaborate on the method? How many songs did you learn a day? Do you remember a distinct method?

V.P.: I don’t recall much. Whatever we learn from forefathers traditionally we pass it down to the next generation to preserve it.


R.P.: At the beginning of a performance there is a recital in mukhavura like aa...o…re... Can you explain why it is sung so?

V.P.: I don’t know why. I only know that mukhavura begins with this recital of


R.P.: The mukhavura, kalari chinthu, Pattar paavakali….The Pattar paavakali with its ezhupara, thala and accompanied by maddalam, chenda, kurunkuzhal etc.—they were all played inside the koothumaadam—was wonderful to watch and listen to. Unlike the other puppet play groups like Kavalappara troupe, Mathur troupe, Puttur troupe, your technique is different and special. Can you recite a sloka that comes after the singing of aa…o…re?

V.P.: (reciting the sloka).


R.P.: This shows that music had a prominent role in tolpavakoothu. Now we have lost the music. Earlier koothu was performed accompanied by music in the koothumaadams. Your recital is the proof that music used to play a prominent part. All the ragas were used. Now there is no music in it. Do you know which were the ragas used?

V.P.: I don’t know about that. I recite in the way my ancestors taught me to.


R.P.: Before the koothumaadam is lit up with oil-lamps, the performer sings in the dark. What is the meaning behind this?

V.P.: Before the lamps are lit, the goddess is welcomed into the koothumaadam. Rice grains are ritually thrown signalling her entry into the koothumaadam. No one knows where the goddess will sit down. Kalari chinthu is recited and when she is happy and pleased, the lamps are lit. Then the recital begins.


R.P.: How was koothu recited earlier?

V.P.: Earlier performers used to stand up and recite; they were not allowed to sit. There would be a rope which the performers could hold on to. Nowadays no one is fit enough to stand through the whole night. Today everyone sits and recites, and uses the mike too. Earlier the performers’ soles used to swell up because of the long hours they had to stand.


R.P.: Yes, yes. Earlier the koothu started at eight at night and went on till six in the morning. The climax—Ravana being killedcame only with the sunrise. Firecrackers are burst when Ravana is slayed at sunrise. There is a certain belief that if you plant ash-gourd seeds of coconut or plantain saplings at that time, they will grow well and yield plenty. What is the story behind it?

V.P.: I think it is associated with the killing of Ravana. I can’t recall the story now. But I can say it is definitely associated with the killing of a demon.


R.P.: Ravana was supposed to have been killed on the ninth day of the Navaratri festival.

V.P.: Yes, that is what the story says. Ravana was killed on the ninth day. Now I am not able to remember the myths well. We perform this only once in a year, during the festival month. So I have forgotten lots of things.


R.P.: Yes, besides, these are only oral traditions. They are not recorded anywhere. So it is difficult to remember everything and some details might be forgotten. There are four types of knowing; through observation, from others, learnt from experience and finally through teaching others. If we have these four then we become rightly human.

V.P.: Yes, yes.


R.P.: You must have observed the designs in the puppets. Who made the puppets? Are they made here or…?  

V.P.: No, we bought puppets from the artists who were involved in making them. Around 20-25 puppets are needed for a performance. So we bought the puppets and kept them safely. When it was time for a performance we took them out and performed with them.  


R.P.: Do you know anything about the different mudras or gestures seen in these puppets?

V.P.: No.


R.P.: The puppets have different mudras like those that are seen in dance forms like Mohiniyattam, the most important one being the chin mudra (showing a mudra where tips of thumb and forefinger touch and the other fingers are straight). Do you know what this mudra means?

V.P.: I think it is related to Om.


R.P.: My father told me that it is a mudra symbolizing peace. At home I have a collection of old puppets and the puppets with different mudras. All the mudras used in tolpavakoothu are seen in those puppets. Now, what do you think will be the future of koothu?

V.P.: Nowadays young people are not interested in learning koothu. The main reason is that koothu is performed in temples only during the four months of festival time. For the rest eight months the artists are out of a job. How would we survive these eight months? Besides it takes great effort to learn the songs and perform throughout the night. No one is ready for that. Now they have started to record it.


R.P.: Has anyone played the record while performing the koothu?   

V.P.: No, they haven’t played the record inside the koothumadam till now. But it may happen in future.


R.P.: Women are not allowed to perform the koothu. What would be reason behind it? The koothumadam is actually outside the temple precincts. So is this an elite caste art form or does it belong to everyone? What do you think?

V.P.: Women are not allowed inside the koothumadam. It must be due to the idea of pollution associated with menstruation.


R.P.: But other temple art forms like Mohiniattam, Koottiyattam etc. allow women to perform. In the view of young men not coming forward to learn tolpavakoothu, will you welcome women who are willing to learn and perform it?

V.P.: No, women will not be welcomed into the koothumadam. When they are very young they can enter. But once they attain puberty they cannot. That is the belief. 


R.P.: What do you think would be the future of this art?

V.P.: More people have to come forward to learn this art form.


R.P.: You must have heard discussions between prominent performers of different play groups like our Kavalappara group, your Munoorkotu group…Can you tell us something about the speciality of these different groups?  

V.P.: No, nothing much. What matters is that the story should be recited from the beginning to its end.