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Tolpavakoothu performance in August 2016 CC BY-SA 4.0 Mullookkaaran

Folkland Initiatives for Safeguarding Tolpavakoothu Traditions

Folkland, International Centre for Folklore and Culture is a nonprofit NGO devoted to promoting folklore and culture. Headquartered in Kerala in southwestern India, Folkland has three main centers and several chapters in India and associations with other organizations abroad through MOUs and collaborative partnerships. Folkland has been affiliated with the UNESCO ICH sector since 2010.

Folkland envisions a society that respects cultural heritage by conserving arts and cultural traditions and transmitting them to future generations. As such, Folkland is proudly dedicated to promoting Indian culture and values with a focus on intangible cultural heritage. The center provides access to knowledge and information about intangible cultural heritage and is known for promoting indigenous culture that inspires audiences to explore the cultural and artistic heritage of Kerala.
The main domains covered by Folkland are performing arts; oral traditions and expressions; social practices, rituals, and festivals; and traditional crafts. Folkland documents oral traditions and practices and extends training to younger generations to revitalize old and near-extinct traditional art forms. One ICH element of particular interest to Folkland is tolpavakoothu (shadow puppetry).

Tolpavakoothu

Originating in the ninth century BCE, tolpavakoothu is a form of shadow puppetry involving leather puppets. Tol means “leather,” pava means “puppet,” and koothu means “play” in the Malayalam language. The figures or characters of the play are made from leather, and the performance takes place by projecting these leather puppets’ shadows on a white screen in koothumadams (traditional temple theaters).

The tolpavakoothu storyline is adapted from the Kamba Ramayanam epic, which recounts the life and battles of King Rama of Ayodhya. The play is presented in twenty-one episodes spread over twenty-one days. According to legend, tolpavakoothu was first performed on the request of Goddess Bhadrakali who could not witness the war between Rama and Ravavana as she was engaged in slaying the demon Darika. To propitiate Goddess Bhadrakali, tolpavakoothu is performed as a temple ritual, and devotees believe that their goddess watches the performance and is pleased by it.

Making the Puppets

Tolpavakoothu puppets were traditionally made with deerskin, but now goatskin is often used for this purpose. After stretching and drying the animal skin, the puppet makers remove all the hair on the skin by scraping the surface with a sharp-edged piece of bamboo. The puppet maker then draws figures on the skin, cuts them out, and embellishes them with dots, lines, and holes to create ornamentation and different dress designs.

Using natural dyes, the puppet makers decorate the puppets in different colors. Traditional red, magenta, and yellow dyes are made by boiling tree bark. Black dyes come from mixing tree gum and black soot, which is drawn from a coconut oil lamp. Blue dyes made by boiling tree leaves in water while green dyes are prepared from the juice of tree leaves.
After the dyes are dry, the puppets are fastened to thin strip of bamboo. Some puppets are given movable joints. For some of the more important characters, like Rama, the puppet makers create puppets in more than one pose. So some characters might be shown in sitting, walking, and fighting postures.

Practitioners and Transmitters

Artistes of tolpavakoothu are from traditional families. The master of a tolpavakoothu troupe is called pulavar, which means “scholar.” The pulavar prepare the performance text and pass it on to the next generation. Since the text is a mixture of Ramayana and other literature taken from oral traditions and written knowledge, the prose and verse of tolpavakoothu is called adalppatt, where adal means “acting” and patt “joining together.” Performers are at liberty to ad lib by adding additional stories to convey moral values during their performance. Many of the basic performance texts are written on palm leaf manuscripts that are preserved in the homes of the puppeteers. To illustrate and interpret the meaning of the verses, tolpavakoothu performers used to add stories, episodes, explanations, and dialogues.

Puppeteers learn the tolpavakoothu narrative by heart and teach it to their disciples who, in turn, learn and transmit it to the coming generation. In the oral texts, each performer shows his originality and alters or elaborates earlier versions and interpretations, depending on his caliber and wisdom. The verses are recited at precise moments during the performance and in a tone and accent that fully bring out the feelings and thoughts of the characters shown in the screen.

Folkland Safeguarding Tolpavakoothu

Folkland’s main safeguarding measures include safeguarding tolpavakoothu puppetry traditions by identifying and inventorying the traditions in Kerala as well as introducing promotional activities.

Inventorying

As part of its inventorying efforts, Folkland conducted a detailed survey of koothumadams spread over the Palakkad, Thrissur, and Malappuram districts of Kerala. Out of the 108 koothumadams that once existed in these districts, only 80 survive, and some these are fast deteriorating due to the low patronage levels. The inventory prepared by Folkland contains an itemized list of the puppets and manuscripts that the tolpavakoothu artistes have as well as a detailed list of practitioners.

Promotional Activities

Folkland believes that without promotional activities, tolpavakoothu traditions will be extinct within a few years. Accordingly, Folkland has started promotional activities both inside and outside of India. Folkland has organized festivals in several cities in India, such as Mysore, Chennai, Bhopal, and in other places like Kasargod, Kanhangad, Payyanur, and Edayilekkad. Other activities include bringing tolkpavakoothu practitioners to international events and festivals, such as the China International Folk Crafts & Cultural Products Festival in Guizhou, China, and the Myungju Puppet Festival in Gangneung, Republic of Korea.

Transmission, Training, and Revitalization

Folkland understands that art forms that are in the verge of extinction can survive only by transmitting the traditions from one generation to the next. As such, Folkland has organized workshops to pass on the knowledge to the new generation of practitioners. As part of these efforts, Folkand collaborated with several schools and colleges to introduce puppetry into the school curriculum to expose students to tolpavakoothu.

Further efforts to sustain and revitalize tolpavakoothu are initiated by Folkland by extending to training younger generations in the art of puppet making, techniques to manipulate the puppets on screen, and narrative styles required to perform. Folkland has approached several agencies, including the Ministry of Culture, the Sangeeth Nataka Academy (the top body of performing arts under the Ministry of Culture), the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (another top-level cultural institution under the Ministry of Culture), and the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, to provide art education and scholarships to the children of puppeteers.

As a result of Folkland’s efforts, more puppeteers are entering into this art form. After the death of the renowned artiste K.L. Krishnankutty pulavar, his three sons—Ramachandran pulavar, Viswanathan pulavar, and Laxmanan pulavar—inherited the legacy, and now they have formed separate performance groups. Entire members of the respective families are involved in this art. Almost half of the traditional performances associated with the temples of this region are under the jurisdiction of these three families.

Ramachandra pulavar, the first son of K.L. Krishnankutty pulavar, won the Sangeeth Natak Akademy Award in 2015 for his achievements. Further accolades for the family include Ramachandran pulavar winning the Kerala State Folklore Akademi Award in 2012 and Viswanathan pulavar winning the Kerala State Folklore Akademi Award in 2014.Grants for new productions were also given to these families by the Ministry of Culture.
Folkland will continue to work in safeguarding tolpavakoothu and other traditions so that they can remain with the people of India and the rest of world for years to come.  n

Dr. V. Jayarajan (Chairman, Folkland International Centre for Folklore and Culture)

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