Puppeteer who dared to automate shadow puppets to revive a dying art


He grew up watching the ocher shadows and dancing silhouettes of the leather puppets loom over the white cloth screen of the ‘koothumadams’ (temple theatre).

While learning the first lessons of manipulating the light of oil lamps and creating beautiful shadows moving the ritual puppets in these specially erected theaters, the teenager never imagined he would once pave the way to animate them. using robotics.

For the first time in the centuries-old history of shadow theater in the country, leather puppets recently performed the epic Ramayana with the support of robotics in Kerala and Sajeesh Pulavar, a young puppeteer, was the mastermind behind the groundbreaking initiative.

For Sajeesh, ‘Tholpavakoothu’, a form of shadow puppetry prevalent in the state, robotic automation of leather puppets is one of many attempts at diversification for the revival and preservation of the ancient form of art of not disappearing.

The three-minute performance of the automated puppets, the brainchild of the artist, was a huge hit among art lovers and everyday people alike after being exhibited recently at the District Heritage Museum here.

Traditionally performed in Bhagavathy (Goddess) temples as a ritual offering, this art form, believed to be at least 700 years old, is seen 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 interpreter who possesses a thorough knowledge of tholpavakoothu.

According to mythology, the ritual art was performed at the behest of Goddess Bhadrakali who missed Lord Sree Rama’s triumph over the ten-headed demon king Ravana while engaged in battle with Darika, an evil figure later killed by her.

However, artists like Sajeesh are striving to bring this art form beyond temple boundaries and experimenting with different formats to win back audiences and attract ordinary people.

Apart from the robotic app, Sajeesh, who hails from a traditional Pulavar family, tries a host of innovations ranging from showcasing classic poetry and government outreach programs to “date-saved” 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 well-paying job at a multinational company, while watching his father and shadow puppeteer Lakshmana Pulavar struggle to preserve the family heritage. .
Not money, but carrying forward the tradition and legacy of the art form, passed down from ancestors through generations, is more important, said the award-winning puppeteer.

“I belong to the thirteenth generation of the Pulavar community in our family. My younger brother and I grew up watching our father and grandfather go to one temple after another to play puppets during the season,” he told PTI.

A picture of Tholpavakooth in Palakkad district of Kerala. (Photo PTI)

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

Bringing innovations in the format of tholpavakoothu is a challenge as 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 as 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 tricks to get the audience glued to our performance,” explained the artist.

The application of robotics was an idea developed solely to catch the public’s attention and rekindle their interest in the art form, he said.

“We first thought of automating the puppets in 2015. Considering its huge cost, we then 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 the authorities of the district heritage museum approached Lakshmana Pulavar and Sajeesh Pulavar to have their leather puppets displayed there, the artists had shared with them the idea of ​​robotic application and manipulation of puppets using automation.

As museum authorities 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 startup specializing in robotics and futuristic technologies, based in Thrissur. .

The rest of the days were filled with brainstorming and hectic schedules as Sajeesh and the company’s team of experts had spent several hours together coding the puppets’ movements and correcting them.

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

The episode of Lord Rama’s chase 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 be exhibited in the museum.

Music and verse interpretation from the Ramayana, which was usually live during the performance, was recorded and an LED display, giving an insight into the brief history of the tholpavakoothu, was arranged as part of the exhibition.

“A variety of our leather puppets are displayed in museums across the country. But, it is for 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 very aware that the technology has its own limitations and robotics cannot be taken into the temple grounds during the time of the live performances.

“We will never be able to bring the entire tholpavakoothu to robotic format. It is a 21-day show with a total duration of 210 hours involving more than 180 puppets. It is impossible to automate the complete performance.

But, Sajesh said they also receive requests to exhibit similar robotic puppets in other museums.

A request was received from Nedumbassery airport authorities also for the same, he added.

As part of diversification initiatives, his team recently produced the adaptation of “Poothapattu”, the iconic poetry of Edasseri Govindan Nair, in the form of shadow puppets.

The awareness videos, produced as part of the Systematic Voter Education and Participation Program (SVEEP) of the Election Commission and the COVID pandemic 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 as part of a mission to revive this dying art form.

The recipient of several awards and scholarships, including the state government’s ‘yuva prathiba’ (folklore) award in 2020, Sajeesh has organized hundreds of programs at home and abroad during his 22-year career. association with this art form.

His brother, Sajeev Pulavar, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, also practices ‘tholpavakoothu’.

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