Koonathara, Palakkad – A amazing breeze, soulful prayer verses and eye-catching puppetry mesmerise the 25-furthermore viewers sitting down in chairs below the night sky of Koonathara, a village in Palakkad district in Kerala, India. They are a mix of locals and vacationers from all around the planet.

Tholpavakoothu (thol which means leather, pava which means puppet and koothu this means engage in) is a type of shadow puppetry done during situations and festivals held in the temples focused to the goddesses Durga or Kaali. The artform is located only in Palakkad, Thrissur and neighbouring villages in Kerala.

Performed 3 to four moments a thirty day period among January and May, a 42-foot-lengthy unique phase identified as koothumadam is established up in the temple premises. It displays mythological figures backlit by fire or lights driving a screen.

The festive air is palpable as a rhythmic drum conquer begins and the performers emerge carrying a lighted lamp. Fireworks go off to announce the get started of the efficiency and then, in full darkness except for the gentle of the lamp, a feeling of calmness prevails.

A row of 21 wicks placed in coconut shells are lit at the rear of the display screen, designed up of a white cloth stretched throughout the koothumadam, bordered by a black fabric.

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

It is explained that tholpavakoothu is done to make sure you the Goddess Bhadrakali, as she could not witness the slaying of the demon king Ravana by Rama, which is why an idol of the goddess is positioned on a pedestal in front of the stage.

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

About 160 puppets are applied to signify the 70-odd figures of Kamba Ramayana, narrated in diction which is a combine of Malayalam and Tamil, with tunes and poetry referred to as Adalpattu.

Ten artists – the learn puppeteer, singers, storytellers and other puppeteers – are highly proficient in the artform.

Sixty-two-calendar year-outdated Lakshman Pulavar is one of them. He has been executing considering that he was a boy or girl, pursuing in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and those before them.

His relatives are the sole keepers of the 300-calendar year-previous artform, and have been accomplishing it for 8 generations.

The master puppeteer is identified as the “pulavan”, which derives from their loved ones title Pulavar, meaning acquired scholar.

The leather puppets, which are about 80cm in peak, are made by Lakshman and his sons, with aid from other spouse and children customers. They are minimize out from the hides of buffalo and deerskin, painted with vegetable dyes and fixed with sticks.

Manipulating them needs dexterity and focus and is a single of the most tricky elements of the general performance, in which a overall of 2,100 slokas (verses) and their meanings have to also be memorised.

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

In complete, the Pulavar family members complete at 82 temples across Palakkad, with Lakshman and his sons liable for 20 temples, and his brothers and cousins masking the rest.

The efficiency commonly lasts for 21 times all around the Pooram, the once-a-year competition which falls in the very first 7 days of April, but can past even extended. The family members also performs other demonstrates in which distinctive tales are told at activities and capabilities close to Palakkad. These performances are shorter, some long lasting just 30 minutes, and call for fewer artists.

“Artists have to endure decades of rigorous coaching just before mastering this artwork variety,” explains Lakshman, who is in the center of teaching some students and holds a puppet in his hand as he speaks. “It took me a lengthy time to recite all the verses verbatim,” he provides.

‘I like currently being a element of it’

The Harisree Kannan Tholpavakoothu Kalakendram at Koonathara is an institute committed to tholpavakoothu performances and is operate by Lakshman and his sons, 31-year-aged Sajeesh and 22-yr-aged Sajith.

The institute organises training sessions and summer season camps to instruct the artform, as very well as how to make the puppets, training 10 to 20 adult pupils and 150 to 200 schoolchildren at any given time. They also carry out workshops for international pupils studying Indian society. Due to the fact the pandemic, Sajeesh has been providing on the internet courses working with a makeshift phase in his property.

Lakshman Pulavar at a education session with his students [Sajeesh Pulavar/Al Jazeera]

“The drum beats and music incorporate a sense of euphoria and pleasure to the effectiveness, and I appreciate getting a aspect of it,” states Sajith, his eyes sparkling as he speaks.

His brother Sajeesh still left the village to examine mechanical engineering and to do the job for an automobile firm, but shortly returned to keep on the family members tradition.

“I have learnt the artwork of tholpavakoothu from my father and grandfather given that the age of 6 and have been involved in this spouse and children tradition given that my childhood,” he suggests.

Lakshman and his sons are passionate about the art type and committed to preserving it.

But given that the COVID-19 pandemic began, the spouse and children has been having difficulties.

Thanks to limits, the duration of performances has been reduced from seven or 8 several hours a working day to just 4, and much less individuals attend. Throughout periods of lockdown, performances halt completely. The lack of tourism in the earlier calendar year has also meant smaller sized audiences.

Ahead of the pandemic, they would make 150,000-200,000 rupees ($2,057-$2,744) a month for temple performances. Now they make 50,000-60,000 rupees ($686-$823) for each thirty day period. But every exhibit charges 20,000-35,000 rupees ($274-$480) to set on – and what is still left from their earnings will have to be divided in between the 8 to 10 persons included in just about every manufacturing.

With much less are living performances, the Pulavars rely on on line workshops to nutritional supplement their revenue. They have also begun renting out their puppets, promoting puppets to tourists and have even taken up farming. “We are cultivating rice to incorporate to our income,” points out Lakshman.

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

Technology meets custom

Yet another situation the loved ones has encountered is a dwindling lack of desire in the art variety among more youthful generations. But technological know-how may well be coming to the rescue in that regard.

Thrissur-based Inker Robotics is a tech startup founded in 2018 by 38-yr-previous Rahul Balachandran. It trains university and college college students in automation and robotics, as well as acquiring robots to operate in agriculture, market and other regions.

A couple a long time in the past, just after looking at the quantity of do the job involved in manipulating the puppets, Rahul prompt the Pulavars consider utilizing robots to operate the puppets.

Sajeesh and Lakshman have been right away attracted to the plan, as they thought introducing some thing so present day to this classic artwork sort would catch the attention of much more folks to it.

“We have been hoping to build consciousness about preserving native traditions and culture,” Lakshman points out.

But as each individual robot would expense several hundred thousand rupees, they could not manage it.

Then, a handful of months in the past, the District Heritage Museum in Palakkad, which hosts one particular of India’s major collections of musical devices, approached Sajeesh. It wished to host a permanent tholpavakoothu puppet exhibit. Sajeesh saw an opportunity to use the robot-operated puppets and spoke to Rahul.

Together, they set about generating the initially robot-operated puppet exhibit. Sajeesh demonstrated the hand actions to Rahul and his group, who in turn wrote the code to synchronise the movements.

Tests the procedure of robot puppetry at Inker Robotics [Photo courtesy of Rahul Balachandran]

“Sajeesh and I would brainstorm for several hours with my group to convey out the most effective efficiency by the robots so that it reflects the primary type of puppetry,” Rahul explains.

It took 3 months to finish.

It went on exhibit for the first time in entrance of 100 persons at the museum in February.

“People ended up astonished and energized to see the robotic-operated puppet clearly show as it was a new working experience for them,” says Milton Francis, the director of the museum.

The puppets are programmed so that when a sensor detects the existence of a visitor it plays just one of the tales from Kamba Ramayana, lasting between 30 minutes to two hrs. It has been a large hit because its installation and captivated large crowds prior to the most recent lockdown.

“The robotic will be managing the limb movements of the puppets which is the most challenging portion,” claims Sajeesh, including: “It felt surreal viewing the robot manipulating the puppets, it was like a aspiration occur genuine.”

Lakshman and Sajeesh Pulavar look at out the show at the museum [Photo courtesy of Sajeesh Pulavar]

Now they are considering new locations in which to use the robots.

“We have employed a prototype in the museum and are working on the products to install it at the Kochi airport which has a substantial footfall,” claims Rahul. “I am psyched about the prospective buyers of technological innovation and its get to.”

But, irrespective of the good results of the robot-operated puppets, the Pulavars really don’t want to reduce the human contact and have resolved to limit their use to stage performances while retaining the conventional hand-operated puppets for temple performances out of regard for the “beliefs and traditions of our elders”.

“We sense that this kind of traditional art sorts must be spread and taught to the youthful generations, to see that they really don’t go extinct,” states Lakshman.