Shadows and lights have been used from time immemorial as tools to narrate stories. Tholpaavakoothu or shadow puppetry, embodiesembodies this. It is a traditional art form performed in the Devi temples of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts in the Malabar region.
Though the artform is estimated to be 1200 years old, it was only in 2021 that women started performing it. This change is led by artiste Ranjitha Ramachandra Pulavar from Koonanthara, Shornur. In the past few months, she has trained eight women to form a Penntholpaavakoothu group, signalling the changing gender narrative a first of its kind in the state in practising the art. "I taught them everything from making puppets to setting up the stage and performing it. It is a lot of effort, but worth it," she says.
Her first production pans the life of a woman from childbirth to adulthood. “It discusses the importance of breastfeeding and speaks up against evil social systems like dowry," she explains.
The Penntholpaavakoothu performances are staged in cultural centres. The group performed in nearly 10 stages. "Initially the team members were a bit sceptical if we would get in trouble for breaking the stereotypes. Now, we are all confident to take up new projects.”
The idea of Pennntholpaavakoothu originated from an incident during a performance by her father, Padma Shri Ramachandra Pulavar and brother, Rajeev Pulavar a few years ago. “A foreign woman came to watch the show. It was past midnight and she was the only person to stay for that long. So I invited her to sit on the steps of the Koothumaadom, where performances happen in the temple. The next day, it became controversial that I let women into the performance space. As a result, I even lost many Koothumaadoms. But that incident prompted the realisation that participation of all genders is important for the survival of this art. So we started training them in puppet making. With time, it has come so far,” says Rajeev.
Rajitha also faced criticisms initially. “I have heard senior performers say that women are not capable to learn the 13500 slokas needed in this. This is a hollow argument. Even now, most of the criticism came from inside the tholpaavakoothu circle, from senior artistes. They were not very keen on women learning or performing it, ” she says.
The team was also bullied online when it tried to promote works on social media. “But things are slowly changing. We got an enquiry from the government to produce a show to spread awareness on menstrual cups. I will soon start working on it. I hope soon, there will be a time when a woman will also get a chance to perform tholpaavakoothu in temples.”