Efforts to revive the art of Pavakathakkali span over two decades, and last week, six puppeteers performed in Delhi at the IGNCA. Pavakathakalli can simply be broken down to 'pava' which means puppet or doll and 'kathakali' which means to 'play a story'. This hand puppet recital borrows from Kathakali dance, and can be compared to the Bunkaru puppet theatre in Japan which shares many themes with Kabuki, a classical Japanese Dance drama.
Documenting the form
Well known puppeteers G. Veenu and Dadi Pudumjee spoke about the origin of the art, which can be traced to the village of Paruthippully in Kerela where puppeteers called Adi pavakathakali-pandaram had migrated centuries ago from Palghat village in Andra Pradesh. Today, they still speak in Telugu, their mother tongue. On settling down in Kerala, they began to perform the Aryamaala, a Tamil folk drama, as a puppet show. Later when Kathakali became popular in Kerala, the Kathakali figurines began to be used for performances based on popular texts. In the 1960s this tradition was popularised by Chamu Pandaram whose works were later documented by the Sangeet Natak Academy in 16mm in 1972. "By 1978 a shadow puppet festival took place in Bangalore, where it was noticed that the art of Pavakathakali had no practitioners to carry forth the tradition" says Pudumjee. After this, with the direction of Kamala Devi Chatopadhyaya, a training programme for reviving Pavakathakali was initiated by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1982, and G Veenu setup Natakairali in Kerela to facilitate the training.
The puppeteer's act
The epic saga spun on the nimble fingers of the artists, unfolds with an act called Duryodhanavadham, was choreographed by G Veenu in 1984, and depicts the fury of Rudra Bhima, who revenges Panchali's dishonour and eventually kills Dusshasana and Duryodhana under the guidance of Lord Krishna. "The characters can be divided in terms of three qualities; first, the very noble heroes called the sattvik, like Bhima in this case, second, the taogun, who do not use their intellect and follow the protagonists. They flaunt a red beard which marks their character, like Dusshasana for instance. The third are the woman and sages, who are painted the reddish orange colour of the Arcnut fruit. These puppets are good for stories that do not portray a human form, but have a mythical semblance" says puppeteer Ravi Gopalan. "The puppeteer enacts with the puppet. In all the three traditions of glove puppetry in India, the puppeteer's bodily presence is most important on stage" says Veenu.
The troupe includes SNA awardees, K.V. Ramakrishnan, K.C. Ramakrishnan, K. Srinivasan, V. Thankappan, Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan and Ravi Gopalan, who introduce the fury of Bhima with synchronized voice modulations constantly accentuated by the percussion. The puppets have painted faces which cannot change their expressions that are extensively exercised in its complementary dance format. The pavas depict varied expressions to the tune of the Carnatic ragas which also narrate the story in a plain note style, thereby projecting the human expression onto the puppets masked face.
The puppeteer enacts with the puppet. In all the three traditions of glove puppetry in India, the puppeteer’s bodily presence is most important on stage
G. Veenu points out that puppetry were not their only occupation, for they had to revert to other jobs for survival. "We do other work for food, like KV is also a priest, takes up harvesting contracts, and also goes from house to house with a puppet to perform as this is his ancestral tradition. Thankappan plays drums in other festivals for food" says Ravi.
The puppets for the act were crafted by famous Kathakali artist and costume designer Thottassery Narayanan Namboodiripad, who is also Ravi Gopalan's teacher. They are intricately carved in wood called kumbul, and measure between 30 to 60 centimetres. "A single puppet takes over a month to be crafted" says Ravi. In some of the older pictures at SNA, the puppets look very different to the ones used today and have an intricately carved head with lesser emphasis on the body, but now they increasingly look like Kathakali dancers. Unlike Rajasthani puppets who are nobly buried once they wear out, Pavakathakali artists prefer to keep their old puppets with the family.