I just read a book about Tholpavakoothu. A traditional form of folk shadow puppetry practiced in Kerala, South India.
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The Puppets in the Drama House (Tholpavakoothu)
Continuing with my interests in puppetry; I finished reading Inside the Drama-House: Rama Stories and Shadow Puppets in South India by Stuart Blackburn this week.
There is a great deal of skill and physical stamina required of the performers. As it takes place during the night – night after night. A complete story cycle during festival season can take up to ten weeks
What’s even more remarkable is that by and large the performance takes place without an audience.
Let me reiterate. Every year at temple sites across Kerala, puppeteers enter a temple complex annex known as the Drama House. Then, for up to 70 nights in a row perform a story that last for 500 hours or more. With additional commentary and scholarly contextualisation throughout the performance. All from memory … with nobody watching.
In the main, an audience is usually around on the first and last nights. Temple servants, dignitaries, and wealthy patrons that sponsored the festival / performance. But after the first few hours and heard their names they will drift away.
Each performance also includes a break to chant petitionary prayers from local people. Who donated one rupee for the privilege during the day. A prayer chanted to an empty temple, but also to get your name in the credits iIsuppose.
Tholpavakoothu is a compound word of three Malayalam terms. thol, meaning leather, pava, meaning doll, and koothu, meaning the play.
I’ll put some pictures in the shows blog post, but I’ll try to describe it as best I can.
The performance takes place in a 42 foot long room called the Drama House. 42 is a number correspondent to 24 in Vedic astrology which means to embrace the help of ones ancestors.
There is a large open along the long edge of the building. A sheet is then hung from the roof on the inside to create the screen. There is a lovely line in the book that says the curtain goes up when the screen goes down.
At the beginning of the performance a lamp is carried from the temple to light the lamps of the Drama House. An exchange takes place, and the lead puppeteer will take the temple lamp and light 21 lamps inside. Each lamp is made from coconut halves filled with oil to throw the shadows against the screen.
Whilst not mentioned in the book, it’s interesting that sacred light is brought from the temple into Drama House. This act transforms the performance into ritual. 21 in Vedic astrological magic represents prosperity, abundance and spiritual lessons. The number 21 is also associated with karmic reward and can clear Karma.
There is something important about the Ramayana story being performed under these conditions. Karma is cleared throughout or perhaps by the performance of the Ramayana. A story that (by and large) is about how Rama for Sita’s love transcends the physical and marital into a love that is spiritual. It’s a story entirely about Karma. Kerelen’s by the way don’t worship Rama as a God. He is of the Gods but not one of them.
So we have the lights and the drama house. But what about the puppets?, the leather dolls?
Usually constructed from deer or goat skin they are about 4 feet tall. So not the kind of small shadow puppets you may have been mentally picturing. If you are aware of Javanese Wayang Kulit from Indonesia, then sort of like that.
They have a main pole to hold up the body of the puppet. And a smaller one usually connected at the hand to articulate the arm.
Given that these performances last all evening. The puppets are often pinned directly to the screen for long scenes. Or the main support is placed in a wooden log that sits between the lamps and screen.
Being such large the shadow puppets are often covered in exquisite detail. Cut out in the negative, details are created by removing material to allow the light to shine though. Stylistically this looks like doted or beaded holes to denote clothing or belts.
The lead puppeteer is known as a pulavar. They are above all scholars. The role requires a lifetime of study of the Adhyatma Ramayanam. The Vedas, the Puranas, Ayurveda, and classical music.
The performance of the Ramayana in this folk tradition unusual. As not only do they tell the epic poem from memory. They also use dialogue between characters or Gods they explain and expound the broader theoretical issues of text.
Remember that all this is taking place behind a screen with nobody except the temple Gods on the other side.
At the time of the books publication in 1994, Blackburn closed with worries about future. The art form under threat due to younger generations unwilling to take up a role that requires a lifetime of study for very little pay.
But in the nearly 30 years since his field work, there are signs of hope. Puppeteers have begun to move their work beyond the confines of the temple’s drama house. Into venues such as colleges, theatres and arts festivals. They have also begun introducing more contemporary themes and social commentary.
This book is absolutely fantastic if you know the story of the Ramayana. Blackburn transcribes scenes at length, and provides commentary on the changes the puppeteers make to the source material.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints.