Upendra K R, “The Soul of Vibrant Shadows”

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On Tuesday, 16th of April 2013, the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities welcomed Upendra K R for a screening of his documentary on Tholpava Koothu, “The Soul of Vibrant Shadows”. It was followed by an interactive discussion with the audience.

The cameraman and the performance

Sundar: Why aren’t the puppets shown from the back during the movie? As in, why do we not see the puppeteers operating the puppets?

Upendra K R: By going inside the area the light would be disturbed. That is why I could not show the performance from the back.

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Traditionally, there are 4 manipulators and 4 people in the second row that sing the dialogues, and 4 more people who play the instruments. But in the modern day performance, they have a mic and there are two people that render the performance. But no performance can be done with just two people. If Rama has to move from one place to Lanka, the puppet is just moved from one spot to the other so there is no actual performance taking place.

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Here, the art form has become a ritual and I feel like in a few years there will be only one puppeteer left. Until now it has been a one hour performance in which a number of performers perform the act. It is hard to maintain in this form.

On the construction of the puppets

The puppeteers have to be careful of everything. Making the puppets is also a must for them. The artists make the puppets and perform. The puppet construction is connected to architectural motifs. The Koothu puppets are made following patterns of Kerala murals. The veshti (garment) of Rama and Ravana are different. When light is thrown on them, it highlights their special characteristics. Andhra puppets have associations with Kalamkari paintings. Puppets in Orissa and Kerala are only black and white whereas Andhra and Karnataka have coloured puppets. Andhra puppetry stages are square and measure five to twelve feet; the arms and the body are held and move with specific sticks.

Pooja: What do the colours do if they are behind the screen?

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Upendra K R: They use basic brown to highlight the body of the puppet. It cannot be called ‘colouring’ as such, but these techniques allow to emphasize the body and the hands.

Making the documentary

Gayathri: Can you tell us more about the filming process?

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Upendra K R: It took me two and a half years to make this documentary. I started documenting through video at a later stage; was just learning the process in the beginning. I wanted to finish the document for Annamala Pulavar’s 100th year. His mind and voice were good, he was eating well, but his body was unable to support him. At every kala, he asked his wife whether he could perform the japa. Every day, except for the day when he was about to die.

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As for the other artists present in the documentary,  I stayed in their house in Kerala. They work in fields, schools, shops. They don’t have a lot of time. They come from the weaver community. Annamala Pullavar himself is a weaver To work with them,I had to go to their place of work, to help and interact with them.

There are no young performers now. All the performers are around 55 years of age are older than it.

Organization of the roles

When Hanuman and Indrajit are fighting, something is moving. The Kudakkaran is the one doing the moving. The first four puppets can be called Sutradara. They are the ones that performed the ganapathi puja. They take traces from Kambaramayana and to perform it they have constructed a structure. Every time if you work with them you learn something new.

Special effects

Meera: How do they make the blast of light?

Upendra K R: They use chinchilla powder. They throw chinchilla powder when the arrow meets and there is a blast of light. They are versatile.

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On the improvisation of puppeteers

The puppeteers are well versed in Ayurveda and philosophy. The puppeteer connects with things like pregnancy, birth, and so on. They improvise a bit on the message, based on the mood of the day. But they are not allowed to use the same sentence twice in one night. The performance takes place till 5 in the morning and they never repeat the same words.

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Madhava: Do they improvise the text itself?

Upendra K R: On one day the puppeteer talks about how abduction is bad. They have dialogues going on and in the middle they have time to improvise, for instance  when they are talking about fake sanyasis.

Anirudh: Do Orissa puppeteers glorify Ravana?

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Upendra K R: I had an opportunity to work with Orissa puppeteers. They have dedicated their life to puppetry and they bring puppeteers to different parts of India. Light is good and dark is shadow: it is in that way that they perform the Ravanchaya. Orissa puppetry makes horizontal strokes like the energy of a mural. They make elongated horizontal strokes. There are 3 sets of puppets which are standing, sitting and lying. They have one Ravana with 3 emotions. They have a puppet with one shadow; the second puppet embosses the first puppet and then a third puppet does the same thing, enlarging the size of the shadow. The performance area in Orissa is very small so they perform sitting down. The size of the puppet is small but the shadow makes jerky movements. The movements manage to show emotions when Ravana tries to abduct Sita.

Origins

We don’t have any evidence to point to when this tradition started. We don’t have any information about shadow puppetry. We find puppetry traditions in six states of India. These are Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Kerala. Other than Orissa and Kerala Puppeteers, all the puppeteers have Marathi as their mother tongue. These people were nomads and used to travel. Thirumalai Nayakan, the 17th century ruler of Marudai, was from Maharashtra and it is him who brought the puppeteers to different parts of India. But I worked with puppeteers from Thailand and Indonesia. They believe that the King loved his queen and when she died they replicated her in the form of a puppet to show him that she had not died, that she was still alive!

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Use of animal skins

In the initial stages they used deer skin. Then they switched to cow skin but since south Indians do not touch cow skin they use goat skin. All the people use mostly cow skin. Everyone tans the leather. All 5 states, except for Orissa. They make puppets by drying the skin and then they use them. There are still some hairs on the puppets.

Puppetry and castes

Madhava: What is the caste background in these groups?

Upendra K R: The Marathi speaking people come under the SC category. The Tamil speaking Kerala shadow puppeteers belong to Mudaliyar, Sengundar and Pillai communities. In Tamil Nadu the Pillai is an upper caste community. But in all the other states they come under the category of SC.

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Classical texts

Priya: Does everyone perform Ramayana? Is there a reason why they don’t perform anything else?

Upendra K R: Actually, very interestingly, even Thai and Indonesian puppeteers perform the Ramayana. The Ramayana is easy and gives a soothing feeling. The Mahabharata is difficult and since the story is not linear and the characters keep moving, it cannot easily be performed. No other avatar has the performance ability that Ramayana has, because other stories are not linear and difficult to perform.

Acting

Tapaswi: How are puppeteers and theatrical actors differing in terms of performance?

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Upendra K R: There are four vrittis (tendencies). The first type of vritti is where everything in the performance is through dance. Satvathi vrtti has a lot of gestures that moves other people. Bharathi vridhi is where the performance is through rendering. Puppetry comes under the last one. Every sound is created through the puppeteer. They observe and make all the sounds of all the characters and animals in the narrative. There are also voice changes when God is being praised.

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Another interesting thing about this puppetry is that Kerala puppeteers are not nomads. Other puppeteers have stages where they get money from the public, while here they rely on temple activities. Without this performance there are some rituals that cannot take place. In all the 105 temples there is a specific place allotted for the performance, which is used for 15 days and never again for the rest of the year.

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