Technology meets tradition: Kerala’s robotic leather puppets | Arts and Culture

Koonathara, Palakkad – A cool breeze, soulful prayer verses and eye-catching puppet shows mesmerize an audience of 25+ sitting on chairs under the night sky of Koonathara, a village in the Palakkad district of Kerala, India. They are a mix of locals and tourists from all over the world.

Tholpavakoothu (Thol means leather, Pava means puppet and Koothu means play) is a form of shadow puppet show that is performed at events and festivals in the temples of the goddesses Durga or Kaali. The art form is only found in Palakkad, Thrissur and neighboring villages in Kerala.

Between January and May, a 42-foot special test called Koothumadam is set up on the temple grounds three to four times a month. It shows mythological figures illuminated by fire or lights behind a screen.

The festive air can be felt as a rhythmic drum beat begins and the performers come out with a lit lamp. Fireworks announce the beginning of the performance and then in total darkness, except for the light from the lamp, there is a feeling of calm.

Behind the screen, which consists of a white cloth that is stretched over the Koothumadam, a row of 21 wicks in coconut shells, which are framed by a black cloth, is illuminated.

Tholpavakoothu is based on Kamba Ramayana (the Tamil version of the epic Ramayana), which tells the story of the Hindu god Sri Rama from his birth to his coronation as king of Ayodhya.

It is said that Tholpavakoothu is performed for the sake of the goddess Bhadrakali, since she could not see the murder of the demon king Ravana by Rama, which is why an idol of the goddess stands on a pedestal in front of the stage.

A look at the puppets behind the screen [Photo courtesy of Sajeesh Pulavar]

Approximately 160 puppets are used to represent the approximately 70 characters of Kamba Ramayana, narrated in a diction that is a mix of Malayalam and Tamil, with songs and poetry called Adalpattu.

Ten artists – the master puppeteer, singer, storyteller, and other puppeteers – are highly skilled in the art form.

62-year-old Lakshman Pulavar is one of them. He has performed since childhood, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and his predecessors.

His family is the sole keeper of the 300 year old art form and has been doing it for eight generations.

The master puppeteer is called “Pulavan”, which is derived from her family name Pulavar, which means learned scholar.

The approx. 80 cm high leather dolls are made by Lakshman and his sons with the help of other family members. They are cut out of buffalo and deerskin, painted with vegetable dyes and fastened with sticks.

Manipulating them requires skill and concentration and is one of the most difficult parts of the performance, which also involves memorizing a total of 2,100 slokas (verses) and their meanings.

A performance team in front of a stage [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

In total, the Pulavar family performs in 82 temples across Palakkad, with Lakshman and his sons responsible for 20 temples and his brothers and cousins for the rest.

The performance usually lasts 21 days around the Pooram, the annual festival that falls in the first week of April but can be even longer. The family also puts on other shows that tell different stories at events and events related to Palakkad. These performances are shorter, some lasting as little as 30 minutes and requiring fewer artists.

“Artists have to go through years of rigorous training before they can master this art form,” explains Lakshman, who is currently training some students and holds a doll in his hand as he speaks. “It took me a long time to literally recite all of the verses,” he adds.

“I love to be a part of it”

The Harisree Kannan Tholpavakoothu Kalakendram in Koonathara is an institute for tholpavakoothu performances and is directed by Lakshman and his sons, 31-year-old Sajeesh and 22-year-old Sajith.

The institute organizes training courses and summer camps to teach the art form as well as doll making, training 10 to 20 adult students and 150 to 200 students at any given time. They also run workshops for international students studying Indian culture. Since the pandemic, Sajeesh has been giving online courses on a makeshift stage in his home.

Lakshman Pulavar during a training session with his students [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

“The drum beats and music add a sense of euphoria and excitement to the performance, and I love being a part of it,” says Sajith, eyes sparkling as he speaks.

His brother Sajeesh left the village to study mechanical engineering and work for an automobile company, but soon returned to continue the family tradition.

“I have learned the art of tholpavakoothu from my father and grandfather since I was six and have been part of this family tradition since I was a child,” he says.

Lakshman and his sons are passionate about the art form and are dedicated to preservation.

But the family has struggled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to restrictions, the duration of the performances has been reduced from seven or eight hours a day to just four hours, and fewer people come. In times of lockdown, the performances are completely stopped. The lack of tourism in the past year has also resulted in a smaller audience.

Prior to the pandemic, they would earn Rs 150,000 to 200,000 ($ 2,057 to $ 2,744) a month for temple performances. Now they are earning 50,000-60,000 rupees (686-823) a month. But each show costs 20,000 to 35,000 rupees ($ 274 480) – and what is left of its revenue must be shared among the eight to ten people involved in each production.

With fewer live performances, the Pulavars rely on online workshops to supplement their income. They have also started renting their dolls, selling dolls to tourists and even farming. “We grow rice to increase our income,” explains Lakshman.

Sajeesh Pulavar with a hand puppet [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

Technology meets tradition

Another problem the family faces is a waning interest in the art form among younger generations. But technology could help in that regard.

Inker Robotics from Thrissur is a tech startup founded in 2018 by 38-year-old Rahul Balachandran. It trains pupils and students in automation and robotics and develops robots for use in agriculture, industry and other areas.

A few years ago, after Rahul saw the amount of work involved in manipulating the dolls, Rahul suggested that the Pulavars use robots to operate the dolls.

Sajeesh and Lakshman were immediately drawn to the idea as they believed that the introduction of something so modern into this traditional art form would attract more people.

“We were hoping to raise awareness about preserving local traditions and culture,” explains Lakshman.

But since each robot would cost several hundred thousand rupees, they couldn’t afford it.

Then, a few months ago, the District Heritage Museum in Palakkad, which houses one of the largest collections of musical instruments in India, turned to Sajeesh. It wanted to have a permanent Thlpavakoothu doll exhibition. Sajeesh saw an opportunity to use the robotic dolls and spoke to Rahul.

Together they set out to develop the first robot-controlled puppet theater. Sajeesh demonstrated the hand movements to Rahul and his team, who in turn wrote the code to synchronize the movements.

Testing the operation of robot puppet shows at Inker Robotics [Photo courtesy of Rahul Balachandran]

“Sajeesh and I brainstormed with my team for hours to get the best performance from the robots so that it would reflect the original style of the puppet show,” explains Rahul.

It took three months to finish.

In February it was shown for the first time in front of 100 people in the museum.

“People were amazed and excited to see the robotic puppet show as it was a new experience for them,” says Milton Francis, the museum’s director.

The puppets are programmed so that when a sensor detects the presence of a visitor, they play one of the stories from Kamba Ramayana, which lasts between 30 minutes and two hours. It’s been a huge hit since it was installed and attracted large crowds before the last lockdown.

“The robot will control the limb movements of the dolls, which is the hardest part,” says Sajeesh, adding, “It felt surreal to see the robot manipulating the dolls, it was like a dream come true.”

Lakshman and Sajeesh Pulavar view the exhibition in the museum [Photo courtesy of Sajeesh Pulavar]

Now they are considering new locations for the robots.

“We used a prototype in the museum and are working on the product to be installed at Kochi Airport, which has a large number of visitors,” says Rahul. “I’m excited about the prospect of the technology and its reach.”

But despite the success of the robot-operated puppets, the Pulavars do not want to lose the human touch and have decided to limit their use to stage performances, while the traditional hand-operated puppets are used for temple performances out of respect for the “beliefs and traditions of our elders”.

“We believe that such traditional art forms should be disseminated and taught to the younger generations so that they don’t become extinct,” says Lakshman.