Puppeteer who dared to automate Chinese shadows to revive a dying art

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He grew up watching the ocher shadows and dancing silhouettes of leather puppets appear on the white fabric screen of the “koothumadams” (temple theater).

While learning the first lessons of manipulating the light of oil lamps and creating beautiful shadows moving ritual puppets around these specially erected theaters, the teenager never imagined that he would once lead the way to their animation using robotics. For the first time in the centuries-old history of shadow theater in the country, the leather puppets recently performed the epic Ramayana with the support of robotics in Kerala and Sajeesh Pulavar, a young puppeteer, was the mastermind behind this revolutionary initiative.

For Sajeesh, “Tholpavakoothu,” a form of shadow theater prevalent in the state, the robotic automation of leather puppets is one of many attempts to diversify for the rebirth and preservation of the ancient form of art so that it does not turn off. The three-minute performance of the automated puppets, a brainchild of the artist, was a huge hit among art lovers and the common people after being on display at the District Heritage Museum here recently.

Traditionally performed in the temples of Bhagavathy (goddess) as a ritual offering, this art form, said to be at least 700 years old, is observed in northern Palakkad and surrounding districts of the southern state and preserved as a tradition by the “Pulavars”. ‘.

Pulavar is the title given to a scholar and performer who has a thorough knowledge of tholpavakoothu.

According to mythology, the ritual art was performed at the behest of the goddess Bhadrakali who failed to watch Lord Sree Rama’s triumph over the ten-headed demon king Ravana while she was engaged in battle with Darika, a evil character killed by her later.

However, artists like Sajeesh go out of their way to push the art form outside the boundaries of temples and experiment with different formats to win back audiences and attract the common people.

In addition to the robotic app, Sajeesh, from a traditional Pulavar family, is attempting a host of innovations ranging from the presentation of classical poetry and government outreach programs to ‘save the date’ wedding invitations in the format of the ‘ tholpavakoothu ‘to preserve this.

A mechanical engineer by profession, Sajeesh, 32, said he didn’t have to think twice about quitting his high-paying multinational job, while seeing his father and shadow theater exhibitor Lakshmana Pulavar , strive hard to keep the family legacy. .

It’s not money, but it’s more important to carry on the tradition and legacy of the art form, passed down from ancestors through generations, said the award-winning puppeteer.

“I am from the thirteenth generation of our family’s Pulavar community. My younger brother and I grew up seeing our father and grandfather go to temple after temple to play puppets during the season, ”he told PTI.

It was the heyday of the traditional art form, but eventually people’s interest in it waned in the flood of new modes of entertainment and shifts in cultural values, he said.

Bringing innovations into the tholpavakoothu format is a challenge because it is a ritual art based on the rendering of the Ramayana – the “Kamba Ramayana, the Tamil version of the epic,” he said.

As people do in the form of offerings in temples, we cannot deviate an inch from the conventional format in shrines. But, while playing in stages, we have the freedom to experiment. There, we will apply all the techniques and tips so that the public is glued to our performance, ”explained the artist. The application of robotics was an idea developed solely to grab the attention of the public and rekindle their interest in this art form, he said.

“We first thought about automating the puppets in 2015. Considering the huge cost, we put the plan on hold. But, when temples were closed and programs canceled due to the spread of COVID, we relaunched the plan, ” Sajeesh said.

When authorities at the district heritage museum approached Lakshmana Pulavar and Sajeesh Pulavar to have their leather puppets on display there, the artists shared with them the idea of ​​a robotic application and manipulating puppets using the l ‘automating.

As museum officials showed keen interest in the initiative and promised to fund the project, Sajeesh approached his friend Rahul P Balachandran, who runs Inker Robotics, an emerging start-up specializing in robotics and futuristic technologies, based in Thrissur.

The rest of the days were brainstorming and busy schedules as Sajeesh and the company’s team of experts had spent several hours together coding and correcting the puppet movements.

The soul of the Tholpavakoothu lies in the skillful movements of the hands of the pulavars who manipulate the puppets. We can only master this skill through many years of hard work and rigorous practice. This human precision cannot be brought into robotic automation, ”he explained.

The episode of the pursuit of Lord Rama to catch the golden deer was selected for the robotic application and a total of four leather puppets – Lord Sree Rama, Goddess Sitha, Lakshmana and the deer – were automated for display. at the Museum.

Music and interpretation of the Ramayana verses, which were usually live during the performance, were recorded and an LED screen, giving an overview of tholpavakoothu’s brief history, was arranged as part of the exhibition.

“A variety of our leather puppets are on display in museums across the country. But, this is the first time that one of our robotic puppets is exhibited in a museum. Even those who have no knowledge of tholpavakoothu are talking about it now. It’s just a three minute performance. But its impact is immense, ” he said.

However, the artist is keenly aware that technology has its own limits and robotics cannot be taken to the temple grounds during live performances.

“We will never be able to put all of the tholpavakoothu in robotic format. It is a 21-day show with a total duration of 210 hours involving more than 180 puppets. It’s impossible to automate the full performance. ” But, Sajesh said they were receiving requests to display similar robotic puppets in other museums as well. A request was received from the Nedumbassery airport authorities also for the same, he added.

As part of diversification initiatives, his team recently made the adaptation of ” Poothapattu ”, the iconic poetry of Edasseri Govindan Nair, in shadow theater format.

The awareness-raising videos, produced as part of the Election Commission and COVID Pandemic Systematic Voter Education and Participation Program (SVEEP) for the district administration, were also a huge success.

In addition to performing live performances, online classes, demonstrations and workshops, the young practitioner also travels across the country to learn various indigenous forms of puppetry and puppet making on a mission to to revive this dying art form.

Recipient of several awards and scholarships, including the state government ‘Yuva prathiba’ (folklore) award in 2020, Sajeesh has organized hundreds of programs in the country and abroad during his 22-year association with this art form.

His brother, Sajeev Pulavar, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, is also a practitioner of “tholpavakoothu”.

(This story was not edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


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