The multi-hued ‘thiraseela’ (curtain) shivered with the roars of Duryodhana, while he enunciated the emotions of ‘roudram’ (anger). When he emerges from the hiding, tearing off the curtain - not bigger than a handkerchief - emulating ‘kaththi’ villain) roles of Kathakali thespians, the similitude of Kathakali puppetry paavakathakali) and traditional Kathakali is uncanny.
Paavakathakali is performed on stages decorated to fit any other Kathakali performance. From its ever-present ‘kalivilakku’ (traditional lamp) to the songster crooning Kathakalippadam (Kathakali songs), Paavakathakali is indeed a petite form of the larger-than-life Kathakali. In here you get to watch the six-hour-long Kalyanasougandhikam in one hour, while enjoying the nuances and manoeuvrings of glove puppetry. Natanakairali consisting of six artists based at Thrissur is now the sole performers of this art form.
Paavakathakali was the brainchild of a group of wanderers hailing from Andhra Pradesh called ‘Andavapandarams.’ They used to adapt art forms from various states in puppetry. When Kathakali became popular in Kerala, they made Kathakali puppets that resembled Kathakali performers. Chamu Pandaram was a renowned performer of Paavakathakali until 1960s. But soon this art form disappeared from the scene. It was later in the 1970s that the art form resurrected from its ashes with the help of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay - the freedom fighter and visionary. She asked Koodiyattam performer G Venu to revive Paavakathakali from extinction.
‘’I have done extensive research to revive Paavakathakali. I have had K V Ramakrishnan, the nephew of Chamu Pandaram, and Kamaladevi to help in the process. We collected the Kathakali puppets and details related to the art form and soon started a troupe with some other youngsters. The members who were there from the inception of the troupe are still there but many youngsters have left looking for better job opportunities,” says Venu (also known among his aficionados as Venuji).
The troupe performed its first show at India International Centre, New Delhi after a diligent training session in Thrissur. The performance choreographed and directed by Venuji gained international attention and the troupe got its first chance to perform on an international platform at Poland. Since then they have been travelling around the world with the sole purpose of reviving Paavakathakali, while making it popular among people.
When the adept hands of Ravi Gopalan Nair (also a puppeteer) delicately put together the puppets and vibrant costumes of Kathakali (pachcha, kaththi, kari, thadi and minukku), the five other members of the art perform it on stage. The members are avid Kathakali followers and that make them efficient in intricate Kathakali gestures.
‘’I joined the troupe in 1981 and learned the art of puppet-making in the initial training session conducted in 1982; hence, initially, that was all I did. I had spent around three years learning puppet-making under Shankunni Nair. But when more members left the troupe all of us started performing as well. Today, the troupe has six members who are all efficient in puppetry,” says Ravi.
The troupe, which includes the descendants of Andavapandarams K V Ramakrishnan and K C Ramakrishnan, has Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan rendering the Kathakalipadam and V Thankappan playing the Chenda. K Sreenivas, who joined the team a little later than the premier members, is a competent puppeteer today.
‘’Not many Keralites now show the patience or interest in watching Kathakali or Paavakathakali. When we performed the art form before Delhi school children in February this year, the response was overwhelming. We cannot even imagine such an exhilarating response from Kerala,” says Sreenivas.
Today, except the students who are learning the art of glove puppetry under this troupe on a national scholarship, these six troupe members are the only performers of this near-extinct art.
K V Ramakrishnan and K C Ramakrishnan had won the Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi national award in 2011 and Ravi Gopalan Nair received the Dakshina Chitra Viruthu award for contributions to this art.