“It's not just about the puppets or the performance,” says Ramachandra Pulavar. A puppeteer in the tholpavakoothu style for over 40 years, he believes the multicultural stories told by puppeteers from different communities play an important role in underlining the syncretic traditions in the Malabar region of Kerala.

“It's about preserving our cultural heritage and passing it on to future generations. The stories we tell through tholpavakoothu have a deep meaning and can inspire people to be better human beings,” he adds.

Tholpavakoothu is the traditional art of shadow puppet theatre in Kerala. It is found in the villages on the banks of the Bharathapuzha (Nila) river of the Malabar region. Puppeteers come from different castes and communities and the performances are open to all.

Tholpavakoothu is performed outside the temple premises in a permanent theatre house called koothumadam . This allows people from all walks of life to come and enjoy the artform. Traditionally performed as part of an annual festival in goddess Bhadrakali's sacred groves, it depicts the epic war between Rama and Ravana from the Ramayana. However, the performance is not limited to stories depicted in the Ramayana, but also incorporates folklore.

Puppeteer Narayanan Nair says, “We struggle to find funding and support for our performances. Many people don't understand the value of tholpavakoothu , and they don't see it as an art form that needs to be preserved.”

This film brings us the voices of puppeteers Balakrishna Pulavar, Ramachandra Pulavar, Narayanan Nair and Sadananda Pulavar, who continue to perform despite the many challenges.

Watch the film: Tales from the shadows

This story is supported by a fellowship from Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation (MMF).

Sangeeth Sankar

Sangeeth Sankar is a research scholar at IDC School of Design. His ethnographic research investigates the transition in Kerala’s shadow puppetry. Sangeeth received the MMF-PARI fellowship in 2022.

Other stories by Sangeeth Sankar
Text Editor : Archana Shukla

Archana Shukla is a Content Editor at the People’s Archive of Rural India and works in the publishing team.

Other stories by Archana Shukla