The art that Nila inspires: How shadow and Kathakali puppetry thrive on the banks of the river

Whether it’s the centuries old Nizhal Pava Koothu, or the more recent Puppet Kathakali, Bharathapuzha is home to many arts.
The art that Nila inspires: How shadow and Kathakali puppetry thrive on the banks of the river
The art that Nila inspires: How shadow and Kathakali puppetry thrive on the banks of the river

Bharathapuzha, also known as Nila, is not just a river for Kerala. It has been a hub of cultural diversity in the state. On the banks of Kerala’s second largest river, one can explore a number of art forms, handicrafts, culture, traditions and literature which have represented god’s own country all over the world.

The second longest river in Kerala, Nila ties together the traditions of three districts - Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram. The cultural abundance present on its banks cannot be found anywhere else in Kerala; no other river in the state has perhaps contributed as much to Kerala’s cultural heritage.

But this cultural heritage is under threat, because Nila is slowly dying. The rampant sand mining on the banks of the Bharathapuzha is leading to the shrinking of the river, and with it, the livelihood of the hundreds of artisan communities that live on its banks.

Nila’s bounty: Biodiversity and art

Originating from Anamalai hills in the Western Ghats, the 209 km long river has a number of tributaries, which spread Nila’s bounty along the three districts through which it flows. In the lap of the western ghats, Nila holds a rich biodiversity. And once it crosses Kalpathi in Palakkad, the might of the river is reflected in the art, craft, cuisine and literature that has flourished on its banks for centuries.

There is music and dance, there is poetry, fiction, there are different handicrafts that thrive along the Bharathapuzha - all with a distinct flavour of God’s own country.

But there’s one art form that is globally on the decline, and yet it blooms the banks of the river: Puppetry.

There are two kinds of puppetry popular on the banks of Nila: Nizhal Pava Koothu, or Thol Pava Koothu - which is shadow puppetry, and puppet Kathakali, that takes Kerala’s unique dance-drama and converts it into something more magical.

Nizhal Pava Koothu, or shadow puppetry

Puppeteers say the Nizhal Pava Koothu came to Palakkad along with the Nila, through the Kollengode ghat.

Nizhal Pava Koothu is a temple art dedicated to Bhadrakali Devi. A wonder created using puppets made of deer and ox skin, brought to life on a white screen by coconut shell lamps, Nizhal Pava Koothu is one of the most ancient forms of theatre.

Played in the Koothambalams, or temple theatres, of the Bhadrakali temples on the banks of Bharathapuzha, the shadow puppets tell stories from the Kambaramayanam, in Tamil.

Sita, Rama, Ravana, Mareechan, Keechaka, and even the animals and trees, are carved out of the skin of the deer or the ox to make the puppets. They then narrate the Ramayana from behind a screen.

“Our ancestors were orators, they went to different villages and narrated moral stories to enlighten public with knowledge Our family belongs to that tradition,” says Padmasree Ramachandra Pulavar, a renowned puppeteer from Kollengode of Palakkad district.

“We narrate the stories of Raja Harsihchandra, Nallathankal stories etc. Earlier Kerala, too, was a part of the Tamil culture. All traditional art forms have a Tamil influence,” he adds

'Created for Bhadrakali’

Shadow puppetry in Kerala can trace its origins to Hindu mythology. Apparently, after she killed Dharikasura, Bhadrakali Devi had requested her father, Lord Shiva, to show her the war between Rama and Ravana. It is believed that Shiva blessed his daughter so that she could see the Rama-Ravana war in shadows, through puppetry.

“Through the times, 3726 songs, were taken from Kamba Ramayanam and were composed for shadow puppetry. It is performed to give knowledge to the people and used to be performed for 10 hours a night, to complete a total of 410 hours. If a particular word is used one day, it shall not be repeated at all,” Ramachandran explains.

“Our ancestors were called Pulavar - which means ‘scholars’ in Tamil. It is not a caste or a community. They created songs for shadow puppetry and this was then performed at Devi temples. They brought the art form to Kerala through Kollengode, and they camped at each temple on the banks of Bharathapuzha and its tributaries,” he says.

“Bharathapuzha has many tributaries. Most of these Bhadrakali temples were on the banks of this river. Rivulets like Kundi river, Thootha river, join Bharathapuzha. In all these temples on the banks of the rivers, shadow puppetry is performed,” Ramachandran says.

“The river had an important role in this art form, but nobody knows it was associated. The culture came through river,” he adds.

Origin in the Arya-Dravida culture

The puppetry is closely linked to Arya-Dravida culture, Ramachandra tells us.

“It is said that the art form originated along with the Arya-Dravida culture, but no one knows exactly when it took off,” he says.

The Shaivas - who worship Shiva - migrated to the banks of the Bharathapuzha along with the Vaishnavas - who worship Vishnu. The Vaishnavas were the traders and the Shaivas were scholars.

“After the harvest festival in Thanjavur, they used to come by road and water to Kerala at night. After their trade was done, all of them would camp at the temples here. That is when the Shaivas sang Ramayana stories,” he says.

“The story goes that once, they sang the Ramayana in a Devi temple in Kollengode. The next day, the oracle got a message from the Devi that she was happy to hear the Ramayana, and that she wanted to watch it and asked the oracle to bring the scholars who sang it back into the temple,” Ramachandra narrates.

“Then the king ordered that the scholars be brought in. The orators were brought and they performed a puppet show using sticks and a cloth. It is also said that they had made puppets using palm leaves,” he says.

Originally, the language used for the puppetry was Pali. When the Arya-Dravida cultures started merging in the region, they started using Tamil instead.

For Bhadrakali’s blessings

Today, it is believed that performing the Nizhal Pava Koothu is an offering to the goddess. The performance itself lasts for either seven, 14, or 21 days, and it goes on for 10 to 12 hours each night.

Devotees believe that it is at midnight that Bhadrakali comes out of the sanctum sanctorum to the Koothambalam to watch the play.

“It is believed that if the Devi is pleased with the puppetry, she will shower her blessings on the whole village where the temple is located,” Ramachandran explains.

Taking the puppets out of the temple

For Ramachandran’s family, taking the art form outside the temple, therefore, was a massive challenge.

“My father, Krishnankutty, first took the performance out of the temple in 1972,” he recalls. “The then Chief Minister, EMS Namboodirippad, invited him to Thiruvananthapuram to perform during the Loka Malayala Sangamam,” Ramachandran says.

His family faced a lot of backlash from the community because of this, he recalls.

“Everyone blamed my father back then, for taking the art out of the temple. I remember one instance when I went to north India for a performance. Along with Nizhal Pava Koothu, I brought along artistes to perform Kummaatty Kali - another temple art form. During this time, a child in our village was bitten by a snake, and immediately, everyone blamed me for this. They said it happened only because I took the temple art outside,” Ramachandran recalls.

Today, though, the art form is celebrated across the state, and is being performed across the world at different festivals.

Puppet Kathakali

While shadow puppetry boasts of rich tradition and history of origin, the story is quite different for Kathakali puppetry. A form of glove puppetry, kathakali puppetry is the result of one family's efforts to find a living, after having migrated to Kerala from Andhra Pradesh.

TNM visited KC Ramakrishnan at his residence in Paruthipully in Palakkad district. Ramakrishnan is one of the two surviving kathakali puppeteers in the state. Sitting on a raised platform outside his house surrounded by miniature kathakali forms, Ramakrishnan narrates the story of how his community migrated from Andhra Pradesh two generations ago, and founded an art form themselves.

How the Aandipandaram community settled in Kerala

Ramakrishnan belongs to Aandipandaram community; despite having settled in Palakkad for two generations, the family continues to speak Telugu at home.

"It was during the time of Tipu Sultan that our community migrated to Kerala. There was a war at the time, and we fled the place out of fear,” Ramakrishnan explains.

“It is not clear what our community used to do before coming to Kerala; the stories about the settling is all hearsay, you see. Some say we were puppeteers even there. In my family, my grandfather, father and two uncles, and their families, came and settled in this place, along with the others in the community," he recalls.

While the rest of the community moved on to be priests at temples or do other jobs, Ramakrishnan's father and uncles chose the path of art to make a living.

"My father and uncles grew a peculiar interest for Kathakali and began to watch the performances very often. Naturally, they learnt the verses, the songs, the costumes and everything about Kathakali, and thought they could incorporate it to puppetry,” he explains.

The first dolls

“So they approached local carpenters, who made miniature dolls of the main characters in Mahabharata. My father and uncles then painted the puppets and stitched clothes that resembled Kathakali costumes,” he says.

Once the puppets were ready, Ramakrishnan’s father and uncles couldn’t sit idle.

“So they set out. They traveled from one place to another. They used to go to Illams, Manas, Variyams and Nair households to perform. Children would be most excited to see the troupe," Ramakrishna says.

Although the "season" for the art form was during Onam, the family traveled from place to place through the year.

The travelling puppet show

Now 69 years old, Ramakrishnan grew up watching his father and uncles perform Kathakali puppetry. As a child, he remembers how the male members of the family would fill their cloth bags with puppets, hang them on their shoulders, and leave the house. It was often at least a week, in some cases even a month, before they returned.

They traveled from Ernakulam to Malappuram, knocking on the doors of houses and performing their unique art form. In return, they would get a day's meal and 25 paisa as remuneration, Ramakrishnan says, and smiles at the memory of filling his tummy with whatever little food was available at home and sleeping in a corner of the house.

However, when Ramakrishna became a teenager, his father was not insistent that his son carry forward the art form they had created and practiced most of their lives.

The next generation

"My father realised that it was indeed difficult to make a living using art. And so, he asked me to chose my own occupation. Although I set out of home in search of other jobs like farming, I came back after a few years. It was then that I felt I should carry forward the art form,” Ramakrishnan reminisces about his homecoming.

“As a child, I had already picked up some verses from my father. He taught me more, and handed over his puppets to me. Now, my son and daughter know the art and regularly perform it," Ramakarishnan says.

Until a decade ago, Ramakrishna had followed the way of living his father practiced. He would travel from one place to another to perform the art. However, now, he performs at events and government-sponsored programmes.

Bringing Mahabharata to life

When Ramakrishna performs a portion from Mahabharata called "Kalyanasowgandhikam", his expressions give colour to the puppet - a woman figure. This is Paanchali, the princess of Drupada and wife to the five Pandavas. Dressed in a dark red silk sari, she has an orange silk cloth draped over her head.

As Paanchali asks her husband Bheem to get her the Sougandhika flower, Ramakrishna's face lights up with emotions, as he mirrors Paanchali's.

"Kathakali performers wear all the costumes and perform. We perform with the puppets, that's the only difference between Kathakali and Kathakali puppetry. In our case, in some parts, the emotions must come from one's own heart. Only then can you make the puppets dance to your words," Ramakrishna says, his twitched eye-brows demonstrating the dilemma Bheema goes through to find the sougandhika flower.

(All photographs by Lenin CV)

Edited by Ragamalika Karthikeyan

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