The Glove Puppetry Tradition of Kerala

Nov 01, 2015 | Vol. 7, Issue 6
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Surviving Traditions of River Nila- 7

Few families of Andi pandaram community in Paruthipulli village of Palakkad district are the traditional practitioners of Paava Kathakali, the Glove puppetry tradition of Kerala.  It was Mr. G.Venu of Natanakairali who later adopted and effected innovations to this art form.

Paava Kathakali is the only known glove puppets tradition of Kerala, in which themes and characters are adopted from Kathakali, the classical dance theatre of Kerala. Few families of Andi pandaram community in Paruthipulli village of Palakkad district are the traditional practitioners of this form of puppetry.  This community traces their origin to Andhra Pradesh, who had migrated and settled in different parts of Palakkad, centuries before and of these only three or four families are known to have practiced this art and continue to do so. It was Mr. G.Venu of Natanakalirali   who later adopted and effected innovations to this art form.

Puppets

The puppets are miniatures of Kathakali Characters with a height of one to 1.5ft. The head along with head gear and the arms are carved from wood and joined by thick cloth which is a part of the costume. The puppets are then decorated with facial painting, gilt, tin etc. Wearing it as a glove, the puppeteer can manipulate its head with index finger and hands by the other fingers. Highly proficient puppeteers use both hands in tandem to activate the different characters represented by the puppets.

The story line and songs are adoptions from Kathakali. The puppet show is done by the puppeteers who sing according to the scenes and are backed by musical instruments such as Kuzhithalam, Chenda etc.  The narratives and episodes usually are extracts from Mahabharatha like Kalyana Soughandhikam,  Duruyodhanavadam etc. The puppeteers are visible to the audience and as per tradition they do not cover their upper torso. Usually the performance is in front of a lit Nilavilakku (an oil lamp). Till a few years back   they used to visit the aristocratic homes in the villages of Palakkad, Malappuram and Thrissur districts for performances.  The oldest living puppeteer is Velappan, who still follows this  tradition and visits aristocratic homes in and around to conduct  solo performance of  Paavakathakali on special occasions. The other two puppeteers from Paruthipulli are K V Ramakrishnan and K C Ramakrishnan, who are now with G Venu's team.

G.Venu

With the passing away of prominent artists and because of the socio-economic changes, this traditional art was on the verge of extinction and it was G.Venu, a Kathakali- Kutiyattam artist and director of Natanakairali, Irinjalakkuda who literally adopted this art form, pooling in his talents and creativity and uplifted it into a professional team with international exposure. These changes happened during 1980s, when Late Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the then Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Academy, New Delhi, came to know about this art form and entrusted G.Venu  to revive it.  New puppets were made with the help of professional sculptors. Apart from the traditional puppeteers K V Ramakrishnan, K C Ramakrishnan and Thankappan (percussionist), K Sreenivasan from  Natanakairali  had also  given training in the same stories with improved manipulation techniques and  involvement of the puppeteers. Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan, a noted professional singer from Kathakali was absorbed to the team. Venu incorporated all the musical instruments used in Kathakali - Chenda (traditional drum of Kerala), Elathalam (heavy cymbals), Chengila (bronze gong), Shankh(conch) etc. and  also introduced  Thirasseela, the curtain used in Kathakali.

Thus, without changing the traditional elements, Venu could lift the whole puppets' play to an entirely different atmosphere. In 1984 the same troupe was invited to perform in the XI international Puppet Theatre Festival held in Poland and in 1986 they participated in the Puppet Carnival in Japan. This troupe has also staged performances in Netherlands, Switzerland and Paris etc.

G Venu, in his book titled 'Puppetry and Lesser Known Dance Traditions of Kerala', explains that during his research he found out some very old puppet heads from Paruthuppulli. One head was dated 400years back, which bears no resemblance to Kathakali figures; but another one, which belongs to eighteenth century, was similar to Kathakali characters. So he came to the conclusion that the puppetry was here in the same village even before the evolution of Kathakali and when Kathakali became popular in Kerala, the puppeteers must have adopted the stories and characters from Kathakali.

Last year, under the leadership of Natanakairali and with the funding from Central Government, new puppeteers from the same community were trained, who include Harish (S/o K C Ramakrishnan), Rathish (S/o K V Ramakrishnan, and Rajesh (S/o Thankappan, percussionist). But, still facing difficulties to popularize this art form in Kerala.

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