Tholpava Koothu : A fine example of integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures
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Tholpava Koothu : A fine example of integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures

Puppetry is a form of theatre/performance that involves manipulation of puppets in animate objects

Tholpava Koothu : A fine example of integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures

New Delhi: Puppetry is a form of theatre/performance that involves manipulation of puppets in animate objects, often resembling some type of human or animal figure. They are animated or manipulated by a human called ‘Puppeteer’. 

It is a very ancient form of theatre which dates back to the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece. In ancient southern region of India, the religious practices of the people and their moral code were based upon and derived from Dravidian Culture. 

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But gradually new religious practices and ideals entered south from the north. The result was a blending of the Dravidian Culture of the south and the Aryan culture of the north which it is believed  took place about three or four centuries before Christ. 

The influence of this blending of the two cultures, Aryan and Dravidian can be seen not only in the religious life of the people but also in the arts. Among the ancient art forms of Kerala Tholpava Koothu or Shadow Puppet theatre occupies a prominent place. It is a fine example of the integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures.

When this journalist (Shri Ram Shaw) caught up with Rajeev Pulavar, a renowned puppeteer, recently at an event at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, he shared and divulged the details about this fine art form called Tholpava Koothu. This piece is based on the conversation with him.

Rajeev Pulavar has won Ustad Bismillahakhan Yuva Puraskara, National Award from Sangeet Natak Academy, New Delhi and many awards including “Young talented artiste award Kerala Sangeet Natak academy”. He participated in the world music and shadow puppet festival conducted in Thailand recently. He is one of the initiators who began to introduce contemporary and secular themes to appeal to the youth, and performances are no longer confined only to temples but are also held in colleges and elsewhere.

Tholpava Koothu, a form of shadow puppet play traditionally performed in Devi temples in North Kerala, has been long consigned to oblivion. We do not know exactly when Tholpavathu began to be performed all that we can say it is very ancient and 1200 years old art form.

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Modern Kerala was originally a part of Dakshina Dravida or Tamilakam. This large region extended to the west and east right up to the ocean. Its northern boundary was Tirupati and it stretched up to Kanyakumari in the south. 

This region consisted of three kingdoms: Chera, Chola and Pandya. Modern Kerala was part of the Chera kingdom. Tamil was the common language of all these three kingdoms. The modern language of Kerala, Malayalam, took in shape as a language distinct from Tamil only in the ninth century A.D. Till then Tamil was the language of Kerala. 

There were innumerable folk songs on the story of Rama. In the ninth century A.D. an inhabitant of Kerala named Kulasekhara Alvar wrote a long narrative Ramayana poem in Tamil. Another poet of South Kerala, Ayyi Pillai, also wrote a version of the Ramayana called Ramakatha-Pattu in Tamil.  

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Actually this art form was originated at Thanjavur in Tamilnadu. There it named as Bommayattam or Bommakali. It presents the Ramayana story as told by Kamba Ramayana Pavakoothu performers, as earlier mentioned have added some of their own verses to the Koothukavikal and all of these are in Tamil. A few verses are in Sanskrit and remove a mixture of Tamil and Sanskrit.

When did Kamba Ramayana begin to influence Tolpava Koothu? It is believed that the man who first incorporated verses from the Kamba Ramayana in to the literary composition for Pavakoothu was Chinnathampi Vadhyar who belonged to Puthur village of Palghat. He came from a family famous for its scholars, astrologers and Ayurvedic physicians. 

Chinnathampi was a scholar who had studied the Ramayana and since he was deeply interested in the epic he went, one day, to a Brahmin’s house to listen to the recitation of the Kamba Ramayana. They claimed that he had no right to listen to the reading of the Puranas and the scriptures. 

Insulted by this treatment, he resolved to present the Kamba Ramayana in such a way that even ordinary people could enjoy it. He believed that Tolpava Koothu would be the best medium for presenting the narrative to ordinary people. It was he who thus brought the Kamba Ramayana into Pava Koothu. As a result, Koothu became more popular.

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It also named as Thol Bomalattam in Andhra Pradesh, Ravana Chaya in Orissa, and Katputh in Rajasthan .But in Tamil Nadu this art form is in declined stage. In some part of Tanjavur it acts as street play to emphasize some comedy plays. Thanjavur, Sreeranga Pattanam centre of art and architecture, the kings were highly patronized these art forms.

Among them a few sect migrated to Nagarkovil, Sri Lanka, and at last reached to Kollangod at Palakkad in present Kerala. At that time this region was under Madras Province. The migrated team who had settled under Kollengode king flourished this temple art.

The explanations given by the puppeteers are often in a mix of prose and verse and they are delivered in a tone appropriate to context. Sound scholarship in Ramayana is not only qualification for a Tholpava Koothu performer. He has to be well versed in puranas and shastras and also be competent enough to speak fluently on topic.

Pulavar is the horrific title given to given to scholar-cum-performer who has in depth knowledge of Tholpava Koothu. In the earlier time women never participated in this art form. But later and nowadays women started to involve in this art form actively.

Thol Pavakoothu puppets are made of deer skin, puppets are coloured in different colours. The figures are drawn on the skin, cut out and embellished with dots, lines and holes. The arms of the puppets are provided with movable joints.  The expression on the faces of the puppets, we notice close resemblances between them and the figures in natural paintings 

In1979 a shadow puppetry troupe headed by Krishnankutty Pulavar participated in an international puppet show in Russia. It was the first time a puppetry troupe from Kerala has been to an international show. In 1980 a museum was setup in Germany in the name of Krishnankutty Pulavar by Michael Mishcheve, a German who visited Krishnan Kutty Pulavar that year. He gave Michael an array of puppets and he turn built a museum in his name in Germany. 

Nowadays this art form is spreaded to various areas. Now his successors are propagating it worldwide by adopting literary and social themes. The puppetry adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, ‘Krishna Charitham’ and ‘Gandhi Charitham’ has won wide appreciation. Along with these, this art form it revealed social campaigns like issues such as AIDS. An active group led by the son of Krishnan Kutty Pulavar (Ramachandra Pulavar and his relatives) is struggling to keep the art form alive.  

While the younger generation in India are not aware of the possibilities of Tholpava Koothu. It has become a hot research topic in many foreign universities. Professors and students from California University, as part of their research they visit India to watch and learn Tholpava Koothu. This subject has lot of aspects for Research. By the development of this art form we attain a scope of development in Tourism also. It also enriches our cultural and social traditions. At the same time as a History student, can find out the hidden factors.