Technology meets tradition: The robotic leather puppets in Kerala | Art and Culture


Koonathara, Palakkad – The cool breeze, affectionate prayer verses and eye-catching puppet show fascinated more than 25 spectators sitting on chairs under the night sky in the village of Koonathara in the Palakkad region of Kerala, India. They are a mixture of locals and tourists from all over the world.

Tholpavakoothu (thol means leather, pava means puppet, and koothu means game) is a type of shadow puppetry performed during events and festivals held in temples dedicated to the goddess Durga or Kali. This art form only exists in Palakkad, Thrissur and neighboring villages in Kerala.

From January to May, perform three to four times a month, and set up a 42-foot-long special stage called koothumadam in the temple. It displays mythical figures backlit by fire or lights behind the screen.

When the rhythmic drums sounded and the performer appeared with a lit lamp, the festive atmosphere was blown over. Fireworks sounded, announcing the start of the performance, and then in the darkness except the lights, a sense of calm prevailed.

A row of 21 wicks placed in coconut shells light up behind the screen, which is made of white cloth spread on koothumadam and surrounded by black cloth.

Tholpavakoothu is based on the Kamba Ramayana (the Tamil version of the epic Ramayana) and tells the story of the Hindu god Sri Ram from birth to being crowned as King of Ayodhya.

It is said that tholpavakoothu performed to please the goddess Bhadrakali because she could not witness Rama killing the demon king Robona with her own eyes, which is why the idol of the goddess was placed on the pedestal in front of the stage.

Puppet from behind the screen [Photo courtesy of Sajeesh Pulavar]

Approximately 160 puppets are used to represent more than 70 characters of Kamba Ramayana, narrated in a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil language, accompanied by songs and poems called Adalpattu.

Ten artists-puppet masters, singers, storytellers, and other puppet masters-are highly skilled in the art form.

Lakshman Pulavar, 62, is one of them. He has been performing since he was a child, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and those before them.

His family is the sole guardian of this 300-year-old art form and has been passed down for eight generations.

The puppet masters are called “pulavan”, derived from their last name Pulavar, which means learned scholar.

The leather puppets are about 80 cm tall and were made by Lakshman and his son with the help of other family members. They were cut from buffalo leather and deerskin, painted with vegetable dyes and fixed with wooden sticks.

Manipulating them requires dexterity and concentration, and is one of the most difficult parts of the performance. A total of 2,100 sloka (verses) and their meaning must also be memorized.

Performance team in front of the stage [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

The Pulavar family performed in a total of 82 temples in Palakkad, Lakshman and his sons were responsible for 20 temples, and his brothers and cousins ??were responsible for the rest.

The performance usually lasts for 21 days, around the Pooram Festival held in the first week of April each year, but it can also last longer. The family also performed other shows, telling different stories in events and activities around Palakkad. These performances are shorter, some last only 30 minutes, and require fewer artists.

“An artist must go through years of rigorous training to master this art form,” Lakshman explained, he is training some students, while talking while holding a puppet in his hand. “It took me a long time to recite all the scriptures verbatim,” he added.

“I like to be involved”

Harisree Kannan Tholpavakoothu Kalakendram in Koonathara is an organization dedicated to tholpavakoothu performances, run by Lakshman and his son, 31-year-old Sajeesh and 22-year-old Sajith.

The college organizes training classes and summer camps to teach this art form and how to make puppets, training 10 to 20 adult students and 150 to 200 elementary students at any given time. They also hold workshops for international students studying Indian culture. Since the pandemic, Sajeesh has been using a temporary stage at his home for online courses.

Lakshman Pulavar in the training course with students [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

“Drums and music add a sense of euphoria and excitement to the performance, and I like to be part of it,” Sajith said, his eyes gleaming when he spoke.

His brother Sajeesh left the village to study mechanical engineering and worked for a car 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 years old, and have been involved in this family tradition since my childhood,” he said.

Lakshman and his sons are passionate about this art form and are committed to protecting it.

But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the family has been struggling.

Due to restrictions, the performance time has been reduced from seven or eight hours a day to only four hours, and there are fewer people participating. During the lockdown, the performance was completely stopped. The lack of tourism in the past year also means that the number of visitors has decreased.

Before the pandemic, they earned 150,000-200,000 rupees (US$2,057-2,744) for temple performances every month. Now they earn 50,000-60,000 rupees (US$686-823) per month. But the cost of each performance is 20,000-35,000 rupees (US$274-480)-and their income must be distributed by 8 to 10 people participating in each performance.

With fewer live performances, Pulavars relies on online seminars to supplement its income. They also started renting out puppets, selling puppets to tourists, and even engaged in agriculture. “We grow rice to increase income,” Lakshman explained.

Sajeesh Pulavar and the glove puppet [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

Technology meets tradition

Another problem encountered by this family is that the younger generation’s interest in art forms is declining. But in this regard, technology may play a rescue role.

Thrissur-based Inker Robotics is a technology start-up company founded in 2018 by 38-year-old Rahul Balachandran. It trains school and university students in automation and robotics, and develops robots that work in agriculture, industry, and other fields.

A few years ago, after seeing the workload involved in manipulating puppets, Rahul suggested that the Prava family try to use robots to manipulate puppets.

Sajeesh and Lakshman were immediately attracted by this idea because they believed that introducing something so modern into this traditional art form would attract more people.

“We want to arouse awareness of protecting local traditions and culture,” Lakshman explained.

But since each robot costs hundreds of thousands of rupees, they cannot afford it.

Then, a few months ago, the Palakkad Regional Heritage Museum, which has one of the largest collections of musical instruments in India, found Sajeesh. It wants to hold a permanent tholpavakoothu puppet exhibition. Sajeesh saw the opportunity to use robot-operated puppets and talked with Rahul.

Together they began to create the first robot-operated puppet show. Sajeesh showed Rahul and his team the hand movements, who in turn wrote code to synchronize the movements.

Test the operation of robot puppets at Inker Robotics [Photo courtesy of Rahul Balachandran]

“Sajeesh and I will brainstorm with my team for hours to show the best performance of the robot, reflecting the original style of the puppet show,” Rahul explained.

It took three months to complete.

It was exhibited in front of 100 people in the museum for the first time in February.

The curator of the museum, Milton Francis, said: “People are surprised and excited to see the robot-operated puppet show because it is a new experience for them.”

The puppet is programmed so that when the sensor detects the presence of a visitor, it will play a story from Kamba Ramayana for 30 minutes to two hours. It has been hit hard since it was installed and attracted a large crowd before the recent lockdown.

“The robot will control the movement of the puppet’s limbs. This is the most difficult part,” Sajeesh said, adding: “Seeing the robot manipulating the puppet feels surreal, like a dream come true.”

Lakshman and Sajeesh Pulavar visit the exhibition at the museum [Photo courtesy of Sajeesh Pulavar]

Now they are considering new places to use robots.

“We have already used a prototype in the museum and are studying a product to install it at Kochi Airport, which has a lot of people,” Rahul said. “I am excited about the future of technology and its impact.”

However, despite the success of robot-operated puppets, Pulavers did not want to lose humanity and decided to limit their use to stage performances, while retaining traditional manual puppets for temple performances in order to respect “the beliefs and traditions of our elders.” “.

“We believe that this traditional art form should be disseminated and taught to the younger generation to ensure that they will not become extinct,” Lakshman said.





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