The IGNCA Pavakathakali Festival and workshop at Kerala
- Manjari Sinha
Photos: Manoj Parameswaran

December 26, 2011

In order to rejuvenate the age old tradition of Pavakathakali, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) New Delhi in collaboration with Natana Kairali (Research & Performance Centre for Traditional Arts) Irinjalakuda, Kerala, organized a week-long festival and workshop of this forgotten art form in those villages where they thrived till the sixth decade of the 20th century.  The Aandipandaram puppeteers once used to wander in these villages from courtyard to courtyard with their Pachha, Kari, Kathi and other puppets dancing on their fingers. This festival was also a part of Natana Kairali’s efforts to bring back the traditional art forms that have now migrated from their rural origins to greener urban pastures. The festival and workshop started on 3rd December 2011 at Paruthippulli Gramam, the native village of Pavakathakali and continued re-trailing back through other surrounding villages concluding at Natana Kairali, Irinjalakuda on 11th Dec 2011.

Pavakathakali workshop at Paruthipulli Gramam

Pavakathakali or puppet Kathakali is a glove puppet theatre that popularized Kathakali, the classical dance theatre of Kerala in a big way. The Aandipandaras (Puppeteers) who had migrated from Andhra Pradesh many centuries ago and settled in Kerala used to perform the Aryamalas or the Tamil folk drama as puppet shows, as means of their livelihood. Later when Kathakali came in vogue in Kerala, they carved Kathakali figures, studied their text and shaped their art into Pavakathakali. They did get a lot of encouragement and acceptance for these performances when they traveled across villages performing from house to house in domestic spaces for children and adults. When such itinerant performers arrived at the ancestral homes called Manas, the host paid a lot of attention to their requirements and offered sumptuous ‘Dakshina’ (remuneration) after their performances that generated a lot of excitement especially in children.

Chamu Pandaram was a noted artiste of Pavakathakali whose performance was documented by Sangeet Natak Academi way back in 1972. But later on due to lack of interest it was neglected by next generations of these puppeteers who took to other lucrative means for livelihood. Kamala Devi Chattopadhya, the then chairperson of the SNA underlined the need to revive this art form after she happened to see two such puppets in Trissur museum in 1980. She entrusted G Venu for the survey and research of this forgotten art form. Acharya Krishnakutty Pulvar, the Pavatolakuthu (leather puppetry) maestro helped Venu with the information that Chamu Pandaram and his family lived in Paruthippulli village. When the training programme for reviving Pavakathakali was initiated by SNA in 1982, the main performers Chamu Pandaram and Velayudhan Pandaram had passed away.

Bhima and Draupadi in ‘Kalyana Saugandhikam’
Only KV Ramakrishnan, son of Velayudha Pandaram, KC Karruppan and KC Ramkrishnan, sons of Chamu Pandaram and percussionist V Thankappan remained in the traditional family who could just about handle the art form. None of them had the expertise to make puppets. Then Thottassery Narayanan, the Kathakali artiste and costume designer studied the old puppets and carved new ones. Six students were selected from Paruthippulli and Kodumbu villages for training in the performance of Pavakathakali and Ravi G Nair studied the art of puppet making. The overall responsibility of training and presentation was looked after by G Venu, who wrote the first Attakatha of Kalyana Saugandhikam when Kamaladevi wanted it to be performed at the India International Centre (IIC) Delhi, in 1984. Following this Duryodanavadham, Dakshayagam and Uttaraswayamvaram were also choreographed.

After the successful performance of Pavakathakali at the IIC, the troupe was invited to participate in the XIth International Puppet Theatre Festival held in Polland in 1984 and at the Puppet Carnival held in Japan in 1986. Venu tells me that 1987 was the year of incredible achievement with numerous performances at home and abroad that gave Pavakathakali worldwide popularity. But at present there is only a small group of puppeteers at Natana Kairali. With the SNA Award to KV Ramkrishnan and KC Ramakrishnan in the year 2011 and the Dakshina Chitra Viruthu Award for Ravi Gopalan Nair, the art form has reveived moral support but G Venu believes that it is imperative to nourish and nurture a new generation of Pavakathakali puppteers for the sustenance of this endangered art form. Therefore the present festival not only organized performances but also workshops to train the young talents from these traditional families.

Vocalist Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan
G Venu performing Hanuman on the concluding day
Opening with the ritual pooja or worship of the puppets at the residence of Chamu Pandaram with the auspicious sound of conch, chengila, edakka, elathalam et al at the Mariyamma Kshetram of Paruthippulli village, the festival was formally inaugurated by the senior most puppeteer of this traditional family, the 86 year old Karuppan Pandaram. There was also a workshop where Gurus like Ravi Gopalan Nair and K Sreenivasan trained the young talents prior to the evening performances of Kalyana Saugandhikam and Dakshayagam. The villagers dressed in their colourful garments poured in large numbers as if it were a festival of the sort. The same excitement continued throughout the weeklong festival at other venues comprising Kodumbu Gramam, Poomullimana, Kothara, Kullukkalloor, Kottakkal, Azhvancherimana, Tavanur and Irinjalakuda where it concluded at Natana Kairali.
The Pavakathakali performances of Kalyana Saugandhikam, Dakshayagam and Duryodhanavadham during the festival were written and directed by G Venu and performed by puppeteers KV Ramakrishnan, KC Ramakrishnan, Ravi Gopalan Nair, K Srinivasan and Kalanilayam Haridas. Accompanying musicians were V Thankappan on chenda, Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan on edakka and Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan as the vocalist who enhanced the rasa-bhava of each and every dialogue with his melodious singing. Narayanakutti was the stage decorator who used the palm leaves to create wonderful flowers, intricate lattice patterns and the Torana- Bandhanwaars with his imaginative creativity.


The IGNCA not only helped to realize this praiseworthy venture conceptualized and directed by G Venu but also documented each and every performance and workshop including the interviews of the puppeteers, musicians and percussionists. It was a delight to watch these mesmerizing performances in their authentic ambience and participate in this Mahayajna to revive the rich tradition of Pavakathakali.

Manjari Sinha has an MA in Sanskrit from Allahabad University, MA in Music from Vikram University, Ujjain; B.Ed. from Lucknow University; Sangeet Prabhakar in vocal, tabla, sitar and Kathak dance from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad; and further training in sitar from guru Arvind Parikh in the lineage of Ustad Vilayat Khan. She contributes articles in English and Hindi on Music (Hindustani & Carnatic), Dance, Art & Culture for various leading music journals and periodicals. She gives lec-dems on Indian classical music and dance in India and abroad, interviews many musicians and dancers, and is an auditioned artist of All India Radio, broadcasting programs such as talks, interviews, Sanskrit programs and travelogue on overseas broadcasting.