CHENNAI: Did you know shadow puppetry in Tamil Nadu is the oldest, dating back to the eighth or ninth century, or that no women are allowed to be shadow puppetry artistes in Kerala?
Such facts and the history associated with shadow puppets were shared by R Bhanumathi, chairperson and managing trustee at Pavai — centre for puppetry, in a talk organised by INTACH at the Alliance Française of Madras recently.
Presenting facts from her research on shadow puppetry, she spoke of the art being prevalent in South India and brought out the differences in the kind of puppets and also the practice of the art as such, in all the States. For instance, she mentioned that the puppets from Andhra are generally large and are sometimes as tall as human beings — almost six feet tall, and shadow puppetry in Kerala had no audience and that it was performed in front of god.
Speaking about the scene in Tamil Nadu, Bhanumathi said that the oldest form of the art was called Tholpavakoothu and was mentioned in Thiruvasagam, a volume of Tamil hymns composed in the ninth century. Being practised ever since, the artistes nowadays are mostly from southern part of the State, she said and added that there was only one troupe which hailed from Chennai when she was carrying out her research almost a decade ago. She said that she did not know if they still performed in the city or if they had migrated southward.
Bhanumathi called for measures to teach shadow puppetry to children in schools as it had always been passed on through the generations by word of mouth. She also expressed disappointment that the artistes had to resort to selling balloons and other menial jobs to make a living, and emphasised the need for saving them and by doing so, the art form itself.