Puthanannam: Documenting a folk art through the pandemic

Neelamperoor Pooram Padayani is celebrated every year for 16 days after ‘Thiruvonam’ in the Malayalam month of ‘Chingam’. Photos: Special arrangement

For Kochi-native Bini Gopinath, a chance arrival in Neelamperoor, a sleepy hamlet located in the eastern part of Kerala’s Alappuzha district, bordering Kottayam, during an Onam season, led her to one of her most memorable experiences in life.

A former Assistant Registrar with the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), little did she realize then that she would soon be making a documentary on the unique Neelamperoor Pooram Padayani, the most vibrant contribution of this rustic landscape to Kerala’s cultural scape.

Neelamperoor Pooram Padayani, a folk art that has found its unique place amongst the indigenous classical arts, comes in a centuries-old tradition passed on from the aboriginals of the region. It is celebrated every year for 16 days after ‘Thiruvonam’ in the Malayalam month of ‘Chingam’.

'Puthanannam’, the 27-minute documentary that Bini Gopinath has produced and directed, essentially captures the magic of the folklore and folk art of Neelamperoor Pooram Padayani and features the people who take great pains and pleasure to continue in the tradition. She also takes us to the painful passing of the art, the artists and the inhabitants of the village through the pandemic, and the emerging triumphant to celebrate yet again the colours, rhythm, and verve of an art form that gives a unique identity in the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

The documentary that Bini Gopinath has produced and directed, essentially captures the magic of the folklore and folk art of Neelamperoor Pooram Padayani. Photos: Special arrangement

For the folks in Neelamperoor, who lost themselves suppressing their centuries-old supreme faith and belief during the pandemic years, Pooram Padayani had been their way of life, belief system, and eternal culture. Once the dark days were over, they rejoiced in being able to reset the stones of that primordial foundation and build their colourful life yet again.

It’s in the celebration and the days leading to the marking of Pooram Padayani that the villagers find their truest selves, immersed in all their entirety. Their minds and bodies are devoted to the making of ‘annams’ or swan effigies. For them, it’s an act of liberation!

The ‘valiyannam’, the tallest of all annams in the Pooram Padayani, is a 30 feet hand-crafted swan effigy that is made entirely using sustainable materials offered and processioned for Padayani. That the annams are completely crafted with biodegradable materials is a matter of tremendous admiration for their craftsmanship. It trumpets the long tradition of ensuring sustainable living and passing Mother Earth to later generations intact so that they, too, can enjoy its fruits, unlike the present tradition, which does the opposite.

Locally available, sustainable materials procured from nature-coconut shells, areca nuts, lotus plants, Geranium flowers, plantain leaves, and other parts of plants, flowers, etc are used in the making of the figurines of Pooram Padayani. It takes almost a month to prepare for the Padayani, but the making of the major figurines takes many more months. Once the event arrives, the imposing figurines with their colours invade the streets of Nilamperoor and its temple and the sacred grove to the accompaniment of the brilliant tone and tenor of the percussion instruments and dancing young and old people of the hamlet. It’s a celebration all over.

For the folks, having the Padayani suspended for two years, owing to the Covid protocols, was indeed a sordid tale. It is like losing a part of themselves and their beliefs. The documentary depicts the hope of the villagers amidst all the pain they go through because they believe that a century-old custom will regain all its lost sheen and that they will all come together again to celebrate the lost light of the village.

Background score by international musician Poly Varghese on Mohana Veena, a rare 90-stringed instrument, translates the emotions of the village folk during the pandemic in a soulful way. The pre and post-pandemic eras conjugate with the forever enlightening lines of the famous poem of ‘Kannikoyth’ by ‘Mahakavi Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon’.

It was one tough ride for Bini. Being her debut venture, she calls it an immensely enriching episode of her life. “The decision to make the documentary was a spontaneous thought that erupted in my mind when I heard a desperate soliloquy from a Kathakali ‘chutti asan’ (makeup man), while I happened to be by the side of the Neelamperoor temple on a dusk,” recalls Bini.

“From scripting to production, it was a great learning experience. I had to face hurdles on several occasions while making the documentary. There were discouraging voices during the pandemic, and there were times I lost hope, I doubted if I could make it, but yet, I moved forward confidently, never looking back. And I’m happy I could document an art that is the vibrant, quintessential Godly part of a people of a strip of non-descript land,” says Bini Gopinath.

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