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Documentary showcasing legendary shadow puppetry artiste to expand reach of art form

Ramachandra Pulavar, legendary Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppetry) artiste, is convinced that cinema evolved from his art form that dates back centuries. He cites the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy’s choice of the official logo, influenced by shadow puppetry, for its premier event, the International Film Festival of Kerala, to drive home his point. At 68, the master puppeteer’s enthusiasm for his art form remains infectious.

Having innovated and improvised Tholpavakoothu, to break its ritualistic shackles and expand its reach beyond the temple premises, the Padma Shri award winner is ecstatic about receiving another tool to further popularise the art form. A documentary, Nizhal Yathrikan, based on Mr. Pulavar’s life and work, directed by theatre artist Saheer Ali premiered before a select audience at Don Bosco, Palarivattom, on Friday.

“A similar documentary named Borrowed Fire on my father and legendary Tholpavakoothu exponent Krishnankutty Pulavar during 1999-2000 had helped create awareness about the art form and break new ground. I am confident this documentary will also shed light on Tholpavakoothu and help further its popular reach,” says Mr. Pulavar.

He says the art form is immensely popular outside Kerala and globally. In Kerala, it has become associated with puppet shows for children. Now, it is predominantly staged for six months across 85 Devi temples, mostly in Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts, but to sparse audience, rues Mr. Pulavar.

Mr. Ali’s daughter Fabi Saheer has written the screenplay of the 27-minute-long documentary. Before coming out with the documentary, Mr. Ali had staged a couple of plays blended with Tholpavakoothu. His long-standing friendship with the Shoranur-based Pulavar family is what inspired the idea of the documentary.

The father son duo of Krishnankutty and Ramachandra Pulavar is credited with reforming Tholpavakoothu, conveyed through story and music rooted in Chenthamizh and Sanskrit. The art form based on Kamba Ramayanam and staged over 21 days was compressed into an hour-long stage show and brought outside the temple premises by Krishnankutty Pulavar.

He staged Tholpavakoothu at the World Malayali meet held in Delhi in 1965, which was the first time it was staged outside a temple. Another 14 years later, he took it to Russia at the International Puppetry Fest.

His son expanded the horizons even further. Mr. Pulavar created stories based on Gandhi, Jesus, Panchathanthra tales, and literary works such as Kumaran Asan’s Chandalabhikshuki. Besides, they were also translated into English and Hindi.

“We have so far staged shows in 48 countries. We are also working closely with Kerala Tourism for producing leather puppets to enhance the reach of the art form. The idea is to get those puppets in every household in Kerala while also creating employment opportunities and alternate revenue models for artistes in the field,” says Mr. Pulavar.

The Pulavar family’s ancestral home in Shoranur has been turned into a museum housing even 600-year-old leather puppets, attracting tourists and Tholpavakoothu enthusiasts from far and wide. Mr. Pulavar’s sons Rajeev and Rahul have also dedicated their lives to the art form. Rahul is doing research on Tholpavakoothu with fellowship at the Connecticut University in the U.S.

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