Tholpavakkoothu: Colourful Crossover of Tamil puppetry to Kerala

The Bhadrakali cult nurtures Tholpavakkoothu in central Kerala shrines even as the night-time rustic art traces Tamil origins

The marionettes against the oil lamps cast moving shadows on the off-white cloth the whole night. Suddenly, there is a bout of fireworks from a distance. The sounds of dynamites roll in from another expanse of post-harvest paddy fields five kilometres away. The rumble works like a background score to the vibrant climax of the puppetry. For once, the verses rendered from the Kamba Ramayanam become secondary.

The week-long Tholpavakkoothu at the vintage temple in Machad , Thrissur, just got over. In the wee hours of Wednesday, the annual show in the central Kerala village wound up its 2021 edition. The end scene, anointing Lord Rama as the king of Ayodhya, echoed with the traditional fervour. Overlapping it came the roars of pyrotechnics from Uthralikavu shrine that was hosting its famed Pooram festivities. It has been customarily so, for ages.

The Thiruvanikkavu temple and its semi-hilly surroundings are in Thalappilly taluk — headquartered at Wadakanchery, six km from the place hosting the puppetry. Tholpavakkoothu, as the form is called in Malayalam, is integral to the Bhadrakali cult across the southwestern state. That apart, the art’s maestros are originally Tamil-speaking Pulavars settled in Kerala. Apparently, the community crossed over to the west of the Ghats after Kamba penned the 12th-century poem comprising 12,126 lines.

Tholpavakkoothu, like other Indian puppetries, did face near-extinction after the feudal era. And overcame that tough face, courtesy to a burst of promotional activities. The tallest among the practising titans of Tholpavakkoothu in that movement was Koonathara Krishnankutty Pulavar (1925-2000). His son, Viswanatha Pulavar, manages a team of puppeteers today. Among them is 65-year-old Koonathara Rajakrishnan. He anchors the show at Machad along with septuagenarian Puthussery Kunjan.

“I bring both masters here at Thiruvanikkavu,” says Thulasi Krishnadas. “My family owns the right to perform Tholpavakkoothu at the temple.”

Gratifying full circle

Thulasi was around 10 years old three decades ago when he used to accompany his father to Machad for the annual puppetry. “We would take a bus from our village in Kuthannur and get down at Wadakkanchery,” he recalls, referring to the 45-km journey that would mean crossing over from Palakkad district to Thrissur midway. “From that town, we would trek down the fields and a few lanes to Thiruvanikavu. On the day after the Kuthira Vela.”

Kuthira Vela refers to the Machad-centric festivity noted for its 24-hour participation by eight adjacent villages that would send large props which look like horses. Unlike in most other parts of Kerala, this rustic revelry doesn’t feature elephants even as the state’s classical melam and panchavadyam ensembles would resonate through the open air.

“The day after the Vela starts our Tholpavakkoothu,” says Thulasi. “In fact, we used to be natives of Machad. My grandpa, Kandamkulam Ramankutty, migrated from Manalithara near here to Kuthannur for livelihood reasons. My father, Kuthannur Ramakrishnan, grew up learning Tholpavakkoothu. He practised it, too. But none of us five children could retain the tradition.”

Puthussery Kunjan and Koonathara Rajakrishnan
warming up the puppets ahead of the show.

When Ramakrishnan died a quarter century ago, Thulasi chose to rope in two masters from outside the family. That is how Rajakrishnan and Kunjan have been regulars at Thiruvanikkavu. “I have been into this art for 25 years,” says Rajakrishnan. “I was earlier in Bombay, working in a restaurant and later with a construction company. Today, farming and dairying are my mainstay when it comes to income.”

Adds Kunjan, 73: “I learned Tholpavakkoothu from the late Kanni Shettiyar. What goes (as the verses) into your mind, as a boy, remains etched forever.”

New, young enthusiast

The traditional puppetry in Machad has got an apprentice. P Durgadas of Thekkumkara in the neighbourhood is into his twenties. For the past four years, he has been the chief helper at the Tholpavakkoothu, which is lit up with wicks dunked into 24 halves of coconuts and entertains the chenda drum as well as ilathalam cymbals.

“I have been watching the shows here as a toddler. Into my teenage, I began to find it particularly fascinating. And chose to take the plunge,” says Durgadas, otherwise an Ayurveda therapist. “From 2018, I have been the caretaker for the ritual. I assist the veterans and learn from them.”

Tholpavakoothu performance

Soumya Anil, a teacher of Durgadas at school, notes Tholppavakkoothu merits young practitioners. “The puppetry here retains an old-world charm, with the waxing moon rising and setting up the sky during the show.”

Suresh Embranthiri, who is the head priest at Thiruvanikkavu, highlights a conventional belief: “Legend has it that the Devi watches the whole proceedings. So, the puppetry starts only after the temple is closed and ends before we open the doors of the sanctorum.”

Not surprisingly, the team of puppeteers enjoy local hospitality, with each nearby village taking turns to offer them food and lodging. Once Thulasi reaches back Kuthannur, he works at a nearby groceries shop. “I am also a lorry driver,” he adds. “I travel across India, carrying consignments.”

Back to Tholpavakkoothu, the trunk box Thulasi carries has of late puppets made not just of deerskin, the classical choice. Reveals maker Puthussery Jayaprakash: “Of late, we use synthetic fiber. It works pretty well.”

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