The year 2019 was a turning point for shadow puppetry artist Rajeev and his father KK Ramachandra Pulavar.
While going through the morning newspaper, 33-year-old Rajeev came across an advertisement inviting artists to be a part of an election awareness campaign.
The district authorities were looking for novel ways to tell people about their voting rights and the importance of participating in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.
“In the past, I had seen artists performing street plays and dances, so why not puppetry?” said Rajeev, a 13th-generation shadow puppetry artist, who, along with his father, a Padma Shri recipient, is among a handful of artists still pursuing this centuries-old temple tradition in Kerala.
An ancient art
Shadow puppetry, or ‘Tholppavakoothu,’ as it is known in Malayalam, is a centuries-old puppetry form enacted using colourful silhouette figures made out of animal hide. In the ancient days only deer hide was used. Since that animal is now protected by law, the artists use bull and goat hides. The silhouette figures are then set against a backdrop of burning oil lamps, and accompanied by music, narration and singing to create moving shadows.
Just three days after Pulavar responded to the newspaper ad, the Palakkad district collector invited him to his chamber for a personal meeting, and for the first time, Tholppavakoothu captured the attention of the entire political class.
The following local body elections saw candidates approaching Pulavar with requests to perform puppetry to spread their political messages.
“Tholppavakoothu was traditionally staged in Kerala temples, from dusk to dawn, to retell the Ramayana as part of the Pooram festival every year,” said 63-year-old Ramachandra, Rajeev’s father.
“My family has been following this tradition for centuries now. We have 600-year-old dolls of Rama and Ravana (Ramayana characters) with us,” he added.
The father-and-son duo, however, believe that the future of the tradition lies in taking it beyond the temple walls.
A perpetual struggle
“Tholppavakoothu is a struggling art form. Our temple audience has been dwindling for years since the advent of television and social media,” lamented Ramachandra.
Nonetheless, struggles always seem to have been a part of keeping this tradition alive. “When I started out in the late 1970s, the money we got from our dusk-to-dawn temple performances was a pittance. For every Rs 35 we made, Rs 15 went towards meeting the medical expenses of my team,” recalled Ramachandra.
As there were no permanent venues for the shows, performances were often held inside makeshift stages made of flimsy palm leaves, leaving the artists (a team of seven) exposed to chilly winds at night through the entire performance.
“By the time we were ready to pack up, most of our team members would be down with fever or cold,” said Ramachandra. “You can’t survive on passion alone, which is why I decided to take up a full time job as a postman.”
Perhaps what makes Tholppavakoothu even more vulnerable is the lack of numbers to lobby for the rights of the artists.
“There are hardly 40 Tholppavakoothu artists in Kerala actively pursuing this craft. So, organising a protest to highlight our plight is not going to make much of a difference,” explained Rajeev.
According to Ramachandra, it was this limitation that inspired his family to expand the scope of Tholppavakoothu beyond the Ramayana and Mahabharata to include socially relevant and political themes, such as the plight of coir workers and voting rights.
“By being part of the political process and other social awareness campaigns, we have a better chance to stay in the reckoning,” said Rajeev. “What better way to do that than by being a part of the world’s largest democratic exercise?”
(The writer is a senior journalist and founder of Vvox, a platform with a mission to eradicate sexual shame)