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Students and staff of the Amritapuri campus of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham sat spellbound in the ambience of light and darkness as the story of the great epic Ramayana, which itself depicts the triumph of light over darkness, was presented through Tholpavakuthu or Shadow Puppetry, a unique folk art form of Kerala.

Cinema is the most popular art form that visualizes stories today. But even before the days of cinema, there were many ritual art forms that presented stories for the audience to see and enjoy. Tholpavakuthu presented by a Palakkad team at Amritapuri was one such. A delight to watch, as the maestros effortlessly play with light and darkness, making the puppets’ shadows dance.

Thol refers to deer skin, pava means doll and kuthu means play. So Tholpavakuthu, as the name suggests, is the play of dolls made out of deer skins, or to be exact, the play of puppets. “We can say this is among the earliest art forms in the world. Ours is a two thousand year old tradition, which has been passed through generations,” explained Ramachandra Pulavar, the lead puppeteer.

As the stage came alive with characters from the Ramayana, the audience cheered and clapped as they witnessed the battle between Bali and Sugreeva, and watched solemnly as Ravana ruthlessly killed Jadayu.

The art form is based on the Kambar Ramayana which was written in the 12th century and is usually performed in the Kali temples of Kerala. It is believed that Goddess Kali who was fighting with Dharika at the time of the epic battle between Rama and Ravana, could not witness the killing of Ravana. Through Tholpavakuthu, the battle scene is recreated. It is believed that Goddess Kali watches the performance, blessing the devotees.

In temples, a special stage called Koothumadam is made, when this tribute to Goddess Kali is offered.

As they performed at Amritapuri, Ramachandra and his team transformed the Amriteshwari Hall into a Koothumadam, as they depicted Sitapaharanam, Balimoksham and Ramaravanamoksham, all pivotal scenes from the Ramayana.

“The lyrical dialogues and the visual effects made this more captivating than a 3D film,” one student remarked.

After the performance, members of the audience were invited backstage to see the puppets and learn more about the techniques of the puppeteers.

“I loved the show. It is nice to be aware of the traditional art forms of our state,” opined Namitha, final-year BTech student of Computer Science and Engineering.

The program was an initiative of SPICMCAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Among Youth).

July 28, 2012
Amritapuri Campus

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