A talk on Tolpavakoothu

A talk on Tolpavakoothu

in Interview
Published on: 27 March 2017
Kuttiyattam artist and research scholar, Venu G. speaks on the efforts initiated by Krishnankutty Pulavar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, himself and others to revive the ancient art form of tolpavakoothu.



Tolpavakoothu master-artist, Koonathara Krishnankutty Pulavar, was probably one of the most remarkable performers of the last generation. We met for the first time during the World Malayalam Conference held in Thiruvananthapuram in 1970. He and his troupe performed tolpavakoothu there. One of the several events happening, tolpavakoothu was scheduled to be performed in the open auditorium in Jawahar Balabhavan. The venue was brightly illuminated. Amid all those bright lights, the light from the little oil-lamps lit in half-coconuts behind the stage was lost. And the shadows of the puppets were not seen clearly on the curtain. And also there was noise pollution all around. Because of all these reasons it was not a good performance. It was the first tolpavakoothu performance that I had ever seen. Despite the technical problems that affected the show, I realized the potential of the art. I felt that if they had only been able to perform well, it would have impressed everyone. Anyway, I met Krishnankutty Pulavar after the performance and had a long talk with him.  


After some years, in 1978, for the first time in the cultural history of India, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay decided to conduct a workshop and a national festival of shadow puppetry. It could be said that Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was the person who gave a new lease of life to Indian puppetry. It is praiseworthy how she infused new life into several declining art traditions. I worked with her on many occasions with regard to the revival of Kutiyattam.


Kamaladevi asked the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi to prepare an extensive document on tolpavakoothu for the shadow theatre festival. As there was no response from them she asked me to collect the details just a few days before the festival started. As soon I got the telegram I went directly to Koonathara to meet Krishnankutty Pulavar. I still remember there was a drizzle that evening. When I presented my demand before him he was most willing. Immediately we set to work. We went up to the loft and brought down the puppets. Tolpavakoothu was performed only in temples during the festival time and for the rest of the year the puppets were put away safely. Then he did a brief performance for me. By four o' clock next morning we managed to prepare a comprehensive report. There was no published material on this art form apart the rare article that had appeared in Mathrubhumi Weekly. So we had to sit and write down every minute thing that was related to it: the history of shadow theatre, the puppets, their making, material used, how it is prepared from deer skin, the process, the instruments used, the stage design and properties used (there used to be many traditional techniques are no longer in use). I sent the report to Kamaladevi. She liked it very much and it was decided that I should also travel with the troupe to attend the festival.


I still remembered the bad show that I had seen before. So we decided the scenes that we were going to present and the duration. And then for a week, the troupe practiced in the koothumaadam of the Mariaamman kovil (temple) close to Krishnankutty Pulavar’s house.      


There were eight members in the troupe. They were all good performers like Krishnankutty Pulavar, Uppathu Narayanan Nair—Uppatu was a tremendous performer with even greater scholarship and a more magnificent voice than Krishnankutty Pulavar—Ramankutty Pulavar, Ramachandran master, Mariappan etc. Krishnankutty Pulavar’s sons, who are well-known performers now, were kids then. Krishnankutty Pulavar had tremendous theatrical abilities in narration. He was a brilliant scholar. The performance started with Panchavati and went on till Sreerama Pattabhishekam and included a shortened version of Garudapathu.


Generally, when two puppets were raised up behind the stage, the conversation between them could last for hours. For the sake of visual possibilities we avoided such long conversations. We shortened the text to about one and a half hours and tried to make it as dramatic as possible. After such intense preparations we travelled to Bangalore to attend the festival. The festival was organized in a modern theatre, Ravindra Kalakshetram. The workshop in the morning attended by many extremely brilliant performers, Indian as well as foreign. Probably it was the first time all the geniuses in shadow puppetry on the national and international scene—from India there was Meher Contractor, Suresh Dutta, Dadi Pudumjee who was then a student, linguistic experts, Tamil scholars, Kamba Ramayana scholars, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay—had come together. Understanding the nature of the theatre, we practised during the day, trying to make the performance as theatrical as possible. The performance was in the evening. Without the aid of any artificial lights, the performance was carried out in the light of oil-lamps alone. It was immensely appreciated. The shadow puppets from other states like Andhra and Karnataka depended on electric lamps whereas we chose not to use them and performed only with oil-lamps. We had tried to make the performance as authentic as possible. In the scene where Surpanaka cuts off her nose, red-coloured liquid made from red lime was splattered onto the curtain. It all made the presentation as natural as possible. Afterwards it was tremendously admired. Many people came backstage to personally congratulate Krishnankutty Pulavar.             


Usha Malik was one of the prominent persons in the field of shadow puppet play. She became the secretary in Kendra Sangeeta Nataka Akademi later. The many activities of the Akademi in the field of shadow puppet play were initiated in her time. She was with ICCR at the time. She congratulated the team and proposed to send the troupe to participate in the international puppetry festival held in Uzbekistan. Meher Contractor, who was the representative in India of UNIMA (Union International for Marionette Art, an international organization for puppetry) also arranged to send the group for the festival. Thus the troupe's first foreign trip was decided.


And we began intense training in the Mariappan kovil. Our intention was to make the performance more suited to the public stage. Today, the troupes follow what we set out to do then. So after preparing well the troupe performed in Uzbekistan. The most important person present there was Zykov. Nikolai Zykov was probably one of the most brilliant puppeteers the world has ever seen. Only in Kerala and other parts of India is this art form of puppet play not respected enough. In countries like Russia, Germany, Japan, China, Taiwan, puppetry is an important art. In Russia (then USSR) wherever we went, we saw theatres specially designed for puppet shows. Later, when I travelled aboard I noticed that other countries too had special theatres for puppet plays. There were many such theatres in Germany. Munich has a museum for puppets. Here, it is among the traditional art forms that is neglected.


Anyway, the performance received very well in Russia. When we returned Kamaladevi appointed me, unofficially, of course, to train the young generation to secure the future of the art. All the prominent artists in the field currently, Ramachandra Pulavar, Lakshmana Pulavar, Viswanatha Pulavar etc., were young then. They were taken under the training program and were awarded scholarships. That was how a training system for tolpavakoothu was developed. People had even forgotten how the puppets were fashioned. We brought back all that. We brought back the experts in puppet-making and learned the techniques. These young learners were taught the process of puppet-making and this saved them financially. Because the puppets are in demand and fetch a good price in the market.  


Krishnankutty Pulavar was a man of extraordinary personality. His house was open to all. He and his wife were extremely hospitable in the traditional way. They would never let you go without serving you food. And the dedication of the man! I have travelled with him for many of his performances. Even when we were backstage he would regale us with many stories and keep us entertained. He had no other world other than tolpavakoothu. So he knew many stories of tolapavakoothu. His father, Koonathara Lakshmana Pulavar, also was a well-known puppeteer. If we look at his life, we could realize how exalted a place the puppeteer commanded in the life of a village in those times. He was the leader in his village. In those days when there was no bank, the villagers would give Lakshmana Pulavar their money for safe-keeping. It was his responsibility to keep the money and return it safely when the person needed it. He was the mediator in many litigations of the villagers. The word Pulavar means scholar in Tamil. More than a seasonal art form or as a source of livelihood, tolpavakoothu played an important role in the villager’s life. The Pulavars in different households competed in a good way amongst themselves. Suppose this year the character playing Bali loses out in debate to the character playing Sugreevan. So the next year the Pulavar who played Bali would approach other scholars and learn more and more and come back and face Sugreevan with stronger arguments to compensate for his loss last year. In those days, when there was no mike, people crowded in thousands to watch tolpavakoothu, especially scenes like Indrajitperuma where two performers would engage in long debates. The visual perspective was not given importance then, it was narrative. So it was koothu, or the way the story was narrated, that was given importance. Scenes like Indrajithperuma would go on for hours. Earlier it was not visual, but narrative. SNA had asked me to produce a monograph on this and as a part of the study I interviewed many people. I still remember the old woman who told that she never missed the chance to watch Krishnankutty Pulavar performing Indrajithperuma. I would say that the performance has to be seen from backstage. On the screen only the puppets are seen. Behind the curtain, we could watch the enthusiasm of the debating performers and the way they move the puppets.


Ramankutty Pulavar, Krishnankutty Pulavar, Uppathu Narayanan Nair all were great scholars who varied their performances every time. It was amazing to watch and listen to them. Uppathu Narayanan was a great scholar. Ramankutty Pulavar had great singing skills. Krishnankutty Pulavar’s ability to narrate the scene dramatically was tremendous. Especially so because the language was Tamil. Despite that he had extraordinary ability to engage any audience. 


I suggested to Krishnankutty Pulavar to write down the many interpretations and explanations. The verses were available in print then. But all the interpretations and explanations that each performer brought into the performance were not recorded. So I asked him, why don’t you write them down? He wrote Ayodhya Kandam first. Then we were wondering who would publish it. I met an internationally acclaimed Swedish puppeteer, Michael Meschke. Many students from India went to Sweden to join his school and learn under him. He was a great admirer of Indian puppetry. So when I met him I told him about the efforts of Krishnankutty Pulavar to record it and requested him for help. He agreed immediately and gave financial help to print the first book. If I remember rightly, it was Ayodhya Kandam. And then onwards Krishnankutty Pulavar wrote ceaselessly. His later books were published by Sangeeta Nataka Akademi. Almost all the stories were written down. I don’t know what condition they are in now. But we tried our best to preserve this art form. In the time of Kamaladevi we tried to tape the narratives. So whatever we could do in those circumstances we did. We recorded the performances, I don’t know whether they are being preserved carefully now but we filmed and recorded it, trained a generation and wrote down the texts used. Pulavar was very willing and enthusiastic to help in popularizing the art form. He wanted his children to follow in his path and preserve the tradition. They were reluctant initially, they wanted to take up other jobs as they were unsure about the sustainability of tolpavakoothu as a livelihood. Later they all returned to take up tolpavakoothu and started to perform. I could never forget Krishnankutty Pulavar and his dynamic personality. Whenever he visited me at home, he would stay for a week. Throughout the nights he would be reciting koothu, the way his own father narrated it, the way other Pulavars narrated it and so on.  


Another thing that I wanted to say is about the communities involved in tolpavakoothu. Generally it is believed that only the Vellala Chettiars performed tolpavakoothu. Later, I learnt that there were Nair households too who traditionally performed tolpavakoothu. Another community that has an active participation is the Ganakars. I have a strong feeling that Ganakar is the oldest community that practised tolpavakoothu authentically. Because it the Ganaka community who had the right to light lamps in many koothumaadams even now. The main source of income is the offering from the devotees. One share of the income still goes to the Ganakars, regardless of who the sponsor is, so I have heard. Similarly the weavers too were involved. Thanks to the majestic presence of Krishnankutty Pulavar we were all under the impression that tolpavakoothu belonged to the Vellala Chettiars. I myself have written so. But later I came to understand that it had a wider reach across communities.


And about the changes in the structure of the performance that have come over the years, the things it has lost… In the old days, thousands thronged to watch tolpavakoothu, whereas now whatever you do you are not able to attract a good audience. Research into this led to the finding that earlier music was an integral part of the performance. Along with the puppeteers there were another set of performers who sang and handled the music. The puppeteers could not have sung for the performance because they generally did not sing very well, they could only narrate. I don’t know which community these singers belonged to or whether they belonged to any particular community at all. They interspersed the narrative with their wonderful singing. The harmonium was played at a later stage. No details are known about this. It is lost forever. Anyway music was an integral part of the performance.


This thought was strengthened when I watched an Indonesian puppet show that is similar to our puppet play in many ways. In that the story was told by a single performer. The music was handled by highly professional singers. Without the music the performance would not have been vibrant enough. In tolpavakoothu such a practice was there. It is now lost forever. What we have to do is to bring back music to the performance using our imagination. When I suggested it to the current tolpavakoothu performers, they wanted to play the music and sing themselves. So I didn’t pursue the matter as singing is not something that the puppeteers can do.   


Then there are the stage arrangements, many of which are not the practice now. For instance, for scenes like Lanka Dahanam (Burning of Lanka), fireworks were lit and held behind the curtain and the fire was fanned so that the sparks and flames enrich the scene. Many such techniques were used then. Likewise the use of ninam (blood, or here, the red liquid that passes as blood). Ninam is used in Kutiyattam in the scene when Surpanaka cuts her nose. In tolpavakoothu, ninam is splattered on to the ayapudava (cloth curtain on which the shadows are projected) to show the destruction and bloodshed. The next day the ayapudava is changed because after throwing the red liquid on it, it would be damaged. Such extravagance was present in our traditional arts a long time ago. Then ninam was no longer made or used. I don’t know whether they have started using it again. So there were many such stage arrangements. They were all lost. That was how the art slowly lost its popularity and was reduced to just a ritual performed in temples. I had attended many performances in those times. I would most likely be backstage watching the brilliant performers debating enthusiastically. It was quite entertaining to watch and listen to them. In the front there would not be a single person watching. But behind the screen the excellent artists would be passionately debating and enjoying themselves very much. There was the genius performer like Annamala Pulavar—when he narrated no puppet was needed. He would be totally immersed in the story-telling. He was a great scholar also. When he and Uppathu Narayanan Nair came together, they could engage us with their excellent narrative till dawn. I encountered the art form and got involved in it when its golden period was over and it was slowly slipping into oblivion. But under the leadership of Krishnankutty Pulavar, we could train a new generation and were successful in reviving it to an extent. But still… Tolapvakoothu as an art form has tremendous possibilities which should be explored. Like using coloured puppets in place of transparent ones, like they do in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and also exploring the possibility of bringing in Kerala mural painting into this art.  But when we bring in such changes we have to ensure that its artistic value and theatricality are retained. If we ensure that, then tolpavakoothu will continue to be a beautiful art form.