A form of traditional puppetry from Kerala, Tolpava Koothu-originating in the Bhagavati temples of Palghat district-presents the Ramayana story as told by Kambar, the Tamil epic Poet, in the kamba Ramayana. In 21parts, over 21evenings, the story is enacted in Koothu-madmas or temple theatres before eager local audience. Part ritual, part Instruction, and a form of entertainment inseparable form rural life in Kerala, Tolpava Koothu is an art demanding knowledge of the scriptures together with skill in delivery, diction and puppet manipulation. This monograph provides a basic introduction to the Tolpava Koothu-setting out its cultural background, associated rituals, as well as specifics of stage, illumination, music, puppets and their manipulation, A day-wise synopsis of the story as presented in 21 parts, select scenes from Tolpava Koothu, lists of puppets and temples where the art is practiced help to bring alive the subject to the reader.
G. Venu (b. 1945) began studying Kathakali at 13 with some of the masters of the art. The first volume of his notated mudras of Kathakali, published by the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi, won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1978. He has also notated 207 mudras and postures of Mahiniattam, published in 1983.
G. Venu presented Tolpava Koothu at the International Festival of Asian Countries' puppet Theatres at Tashkent in 1979. In 1984 he presented Pavakathakali, the traditional glove-puppet theatre of Kerala, at the XIth International puppet Theatre Festival at Bielsko-Biala in Poland and in 1986 at the second Asian UNIMA regional Meeting at India in Japan. A recipient of the Homi Bhabha Fellowship, he has worked for the revival of Tolpava Koothu, Pavaka-thakali, and Koodiyattam for a decade.
Kerala has made a notable contribution towards maintaining and enriching the cultural heritage of India. It has evolved through the centuries a rich and diversified culture which has nourished and become an integral part of the culture of India as a whole. Many of the precious elements of India culture, which have disappeared form other parts of India or exist there only nominally, are still evident in Kerala. The best and most obvious example is Koodiyattam, the sole surviving representative of Sanskrit theatre, which is still enacted in Kerala.
Most Indian art forms owe their birth and growth to religion. They are therefore intimately connected with modes of worship. In ancient Kerala, the religious practices of the people and their moral code were based upon and derived from Dravidian culture. But gradually new religious practices and ideals entered Kerala form the North. The result was a blending of the Dravidian culture of the South and the Aryan culture of the North which, it believed, took place about three or four centuries before Christ.
As a result of this impact of Aryan religion and culture on the indigenous Dravidian religion and culture of Kerala, Hinduism assumed a new from in Kerala, with its own characteristic rituals and modes of worship. 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 traditional performing arts of Kerala, the Dravidian and element predominates in ritual dance form like Theyyam, Tirayattam and Padayani and in the dance-drama of Mudiyettu. The influence of Aryan culture is most evident in Koodiyattam and Kathakali. Among the ancient art forms of Kerala Tolpava Koothu or shadow puppet theatre occupies a prominent place. It is a fine example of the integration of Aryan and Dravidian cultures.
Tolpava Koothu-alternatively Pavakoothu Koothu-originated in the Palghat district of Kerala, where it is performed in the temples of Bhagavati or Bhadrakali as part of the ritualistic worship of the goddess. Tol means leather, pava puppet, and Koothu play, Tol-pava-Koothu thus means performance of a play with puppet made of leather. The theme of Tolpava Koothu is the Ramayana story. Special play - houses called Koothu-madams are built in the temple premises for this purpose. The figures of the various characters of the play are designed from leather and the play is performed by projecting the shadows of these leather puppets on a white screen.
It is chiefly to propitiate Bhadrakali that Tolpava Koothu is performed in her temples and the devotees believe that the goddess watches the performance and would be pleased by it. This belief is based upon the following legend.
Long ago the creator, Brahma, blessed an asurastri (demoness) and as a result of his blessing she gave birth to a son named Darika. When this asura boy grew up, he become so strong that he turned out to be a threat and a constant source of harassment to the gods and maharshis-sages and hermits. They approached Lord Shiva for help. In order to kill Darika, Shiva created the goddess Bhadrakali from the Kalakoota poison lodged in his throat.
A fierce fight ensued between Darika and Bhadrakali, lasting several days, Finally Bhadrakali killed Darika. While Bhadrakali was engaged in fighting Darika, Rama was fighting Ravana. So Bhadrakali was not able to see Rama and Ravana fight. That is why the Ramayana story is enacted in her presence through Tolpava Koothu.
We do not know exactly when Tolpava Koothu began to be performed; all that we can say is that it is vary ancient. Today it is performed by members of two communities, Vallalachetty and Nair. The guru of a Tolpava Koothu troupe is called Pulavar-scholar. The theme is the Ramayana story, extending from the birth of Rama to his coronation, presented in 21 parts over 21 days. The story of the Ramayana is written in 21 parts specially for Tolpava Koothu. This composition, which is a mixture of prose and verse, is called adalpatt. Adal means acting and patt relating to. Since the composition is related to the enactment of the Ramayana story, it is called adalpatt.
The verses of this composition are collectively called Koothu-kavikal; kavikal means verses or pomes. Many of these verses are form the Kamba Ramayana, the Ramayana in Tamil by the poet Kambar. But Tolpava Koothu performers have changed many of Kambar's verses and in some places have added their own to meet the purposes of ritual. Scholars differ about the date of the Kamba Ramayana. Some hold that Kambar belong to the ninth century A.D.; other argue that he lived much later, in the 13th century. it is believed that Kambar was born in Tiruvazhuthur village of Tanjavur district.
Kambar's Ramayana is based on Valmiki's epic, but his presentation and style of narration are more dramatic. This long epic poem containing 20,000 verses is divided into six section: Balakanda, Ayodhyakanda, Aranyakanda, Kishkindhakanda, Sundarakanda, and Yuddhakanda.
In addition to verses borrowed form on Kamba Ramayana Pavakoothu performers, as earlier mentioned, have added some of their own verses to the Koothu-kavikal and all of those are in Tamil. A few verses are in Sanskrit and some are a mixture of Tamil and Sanskrit. We have no conclusive evidence to show who the founder of Tolpava Koothu was or, for the matter, the authors of the Koothu-kavikal. The verses and story of the Ramayana are on palm-leaf manuscripts careful preserved in the homes of the puppeteers.
In order to illustrate and interpret the meaning of the verses, Tolpava Koothu performers have added from time to time stories, episodes, explanations and dialogues. The Pulavar learns, the verses, stories, explanations and dialogues by heart and teaches them to disciples who, in turn, learn them by heart and transmit the text to the performers of the next generation. In this way the composition has been transmitted orally from generation to generation right up to the present day. In the explanations and interpretations, each performer shows his originality and alters or elaborates earlier explanations and interpretations depending on his own creatively. The explanations of the verses and the dialogues are in a mix of Tamil and Malayalam.
There is no doubt that Pavakoothu was performed in the Bhadrakali temples of Kerala even before the kamba Ramayana become popular there. This leads us to believe that there must have been a Ramayana specially written for Tolpava Koothu even before the arrived, its influence become so strong that the original work was modified almost beyond recognition by borrowings form Kambar's work.
Modern Kerala was originally a party of Dakshina Dravida or Tamilakam. This large region extended to the west and east right up to ocean. Its northern boundary was Tirupati and it stretched up to Kanyakumari in the south. This region consisted of three kingdom: Chera, Chola and Pandya. Modern Kerala was part of the Chera kingdom. Tamil was the common language of all these three kingdom. The modern language of Kerala, Malayalam, took shape as a language distinct from Tamil only in the ninth century A. D. Till then Tamil was the language of Kerala. There is ample evidence to show that there were many works in Kerala, with the Ramayana story as their theme, even before the Kamba Ramayana came to 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. The exact date of this work is still not known. Ramayana-pattu contains many minor stories and episodes which are not to be found in Valmiki's Ramayana. Another Ramayana written in Kerala, in a mix of Sanskrit and Tamil, is the work called Ramacharitam, supposedly by a poet named Cheerama. All this indicates that the Ramayana story was very popular in Kerala even before the coming of the Kamba Ramayana.
When we study the other ancient performing-art forms of the Palghat district where Tolpava Koothu is now performed, we find that the language used in most of them is Tamil. One form of folk drama which is still very popular in the villages of Palghat district is Porattu-natakam. This is usually performed by people belonging to the Panar community and the language used is a mix of Tamil and Malayalam. Again, we can see the influence of Tamil in the songs of the ancient dance-drama form called Malamakkali, which is still frequently performed in Palghat. According to a legend, the members of the Nair community learnt this art from the Nambudiris. It is quite clear, therefore, that the people of Palghat and its neighborhood were fully acquainted with the Tamil language and could employ it with fluency and skill.
Now let us investigate the questions: when did Kamba Ramayana begin to influence Tolpava Koothu? It is believed that the man who first incorporated verses from the Kamba Ramayana into 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 want, one day to a Brahmin's house to listen to the recitation of the Kamba Ramayana. But the Brahmins did not give him admission to the hall because he was a Shudra. They claimed that he had no right to listen to the reading of the Puranas and the scriptures. Insulted by this treatment, he resoled 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 Pavakoothu. As a result, Koothu become more popular.
Chinnathampi Vadhyar must have lived about 350 years ago. Earlier on, there had been talented Tolpava Koothu performers belonging chiefly to the Nair and Vallalachetty communities. We can conclude this from the following custom. Just before beginning a Koothu performance it is usual for the performers to sing a commemorative prayer-verse in which they respectfully mentions their guru and invoke his blessings. This prayer, recited at the beginning of a performance, is called guru-vandanam. For the last five generations the guru mentioned in the prayer by the puppeteers is Kuzhiyathu Kandappezhuthachan. The second place is given to a man named Venmaya Pulavar and only the third place to Chinnathampi Vadhyar. In some places Tolpava Koothu was known as ola-pava-koothu. Ola means palm leaf, the pavas (puppets) were made of ola, thus ola-pava-koothu. Palm-leaf puppets have now gone completely out of use. The great Malayalam poet, Kunjan Nambiar, has referred to Tolpava Koothu with admiration in his work Ghoshayatra. This demonstrates the vogue and popularity Koothu has always enjoyed.
In Tolpava Koothu today, greater importance is given to verses from the Kamba Ramayana. For example in the first scene called Shriramavatra, performed on the first day, 27 verses from a total of 48 are from the Kamba Ramayana. In the second day's performance, called Yagaraksha, there are 86 verses in all, of which 78 are form the Kamba Ramayana. The third day's performance, Seeta-kalyanam, has 48 verses of which 40 are from the Kamba Ramayana. The predominance of the Kamba Ramayana is noticeable in all succeeding 18 scenes.
In the course of the performance, the performers give explanations and interpretations of the verses, depending on the context. Often they have to bring out the depth and range of the meaning of works. Where a verse contains allusions or some inner significance, the explanation may continue for as much as an hour. For example, in the first day's performance, there is a verse in which the creator, Brahma, praises Shri Parameshwara. In order to explain fully the meaning of one word the puppeteers have to narrate a long story. This verse, its meaning, and interpretation are given below as illustration:
Kalantakane saranam saranam
Kamantakane saranam saranam
Shoolayudhane saranam saranam
Tolamtukile saranam saranam.
"O Destroyer of Kala, we seek refuge in you, O Destroyer of Kamadeva, we seek refuge in you, O Wielder of the weapon Shoola, we seek refuge in you." The puppeteer recites this shloka (verse) and elaborates on the significance of each word. He usually offers the following explanation for the word Kalantaka, occurring in the first line:
"Lord [addressing Shiva], long ago a childless couple, Mrikandu and Jnanachatura by name, were engaged in penance to propitiate you in the hope of getting a child with your blessings. You appeared before them and asked them what boon they wanted. When they replied that they wanted a son, you agreed to grant their desire as a special reward earned by penance, but added that they had to make a choice. The choice was between a virtuous son who would enjoy only a short life of 16 years and a vicious son who would enjoy a very long life. The couple preferred a virtuous son even though it meant that he would life for only 16 years. You blessed them and eventually a son was born to them whom they named Markandeya. When the boy was five years old, he was so brilliant and learned that the parents grieved profoundly at the thought that he would die in his 16th year. When the boy learned the cause of their grief, he consoled them and retied to a place called Trikkadayur. Installing an image of Shiva there, he started worshipping it. He continued to worship Shiva until he was 16.On his 16th birthday, Yama [Kala, god of death] learnt from his minister Chitragupta that boy's life-span was over sent his men to bring Markandeya's soul.
"The men returned to Yama that they could not touch the boy who was a great devotee of Shiva and was sitting close to his image. Then Yama himself set out to fetch the soul of the boy. Markandeya was at that time busy plucking flowers for his puja. Yama asked him to stop. As soon as he saw Yama, Markandeya ran in fear and embraced the image of Shiva. Yama threw his rope round the image and the boy. At that time you decided to kill Kala in order to protect Markandeya. Thus you become Kalantaka, the killer of Kala. Oh, Kalantaka, we seek refuge with you, Protect us as you protect Markandeya."
The puppeteers thus give detailed explanations of the meanings of single words. To explain the meaning of Kamantaka, killer of Kamantaka, mentioned in the verse already quoted, they often narrate a long story beginning with Dakshayaga and ending with Kamadahana-the burning of Kama.
Digressions are also made in other contexts where the object is not explain the meaning of a word or passage but to offer practical instruction. For example, while describing the pregnancy of Dasharatha's wives, the puppeteers offer instructions regarding the diet, medicines and treatment of pregnant women. Again in the sixth day's story, Anasuya, Atri's wife, instructs Seeta on the duties and virtues of a chaste hoping the audience dwells at length upon the requirements of a model wife; hoping the audience will benefit by his counsel.
The explanations and interpretations given by the puppeteers are often in a mix of prose and verse and they are delivered in appropriate to the context. The verses are recited at the right moment and in a tone and accent that bring out fully the prescribed for the verses.
Sound scholarship in the Ramayana is not the only qualification for a Tolpava Koothu performer. He has to be well versed in the Puranas and shastras and also be competent enough to speak fluently on any topic. That is why the leader of a Pavakoothu troupe is called Pulavar, scholar and preceptor.
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