Bommalattam or Tholpavakoothu is a puppet show of South India and a popular folk art which is famous in the Kanyakumari region of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Artists use the puppets and tell a story to the audience. The performances are mainly performed for the people of the village during the months of January to May. These plays are staged in temples of Kerala mainly Bhadrakali temples and they have a special stage called vilakkumadam for the performance.
Origins of Tholpavakoothu can be traced back to the 18th century. It was called pavakoothu or Nizhalattam or shadow play. Pava means dolls and koothu means play. The plays were stage in koothumadams. These madams or stages were popular and were found in front of Bhadrakali temples. Performances will start late in the night and continue till dawn for a period of 6 to 8 hours. These plays would last for quite a number of days when they are performed during the annual festivals at Kali temples.
Almost all art forms are linked to religion and their birth and growth is also linked to religion. Tholpavakoothu is no different. This puppet show mainly stages Kamba Ramayana or the life of Rama right from his birth to his coronation as the King of Ayodhya.
The language of the Tholpavakoothu is a mix of tamil, Malayalam and Sanskrit which is a special dialect. Here we can see the influence of both Dravidian culture and the Aryan culture. Thus Tholpavakoothu is a mix of both the cultures.
Koothumadams are found in front of Bhadrakali temples. According to legends Kali was unable to witness the fight between Sree Rama and Ravana as she was busy killing Darikasura or the demon king. This was brought to the notice of Shiva, who asked her to go to earth to witness the puppet shows of Kamba Ramayana. The goddess will be pleased on seeing the performance and blesses her devotees during the festivals when the plays are staged.
Koothu madam are 4 feet to 8 feet in length. The curtains are tied to these madams and the puppet show is held behind the curtain. The shadow of the puppet is created by burning coconut shell lamps filled with coconut oil. The puppets are held between the wick lamps and the curtain.
The curtains are made of white cloth and have a black background at the bottom. The curtain will face the diety of the temple, as a symbolic gesture that the goddess is watching the play.
Vilakkumadams are found behind the curtains. These madams have 21 lamps made out of coconut shell and filled half with coconut oil along with cotton wicks. In some temples the lamps are made out of clay. They have two compartments the upper portion where the oil and wick is placed and the lower compartment which is filled with water to prevent the upper portion from getting over heated.
Music of Tholpavakoothu include ezhupara, madhalam, kuzhal, ithalam, conch, chilanka. The artistes also recite slokas (songs) during the performance. They have to learn around 3000 slokas for the performances.
Special sounds are produced by the artistes to give dramatic effect to the performance. In war scenes there are cries which sound ‘Sapai’.
Puppets of Tholpavakoothu are made of deer skin. The skin is dried and dehumidified and all the skin is removed using a sharp edged bamboo. Then figures are drawn on the skin and the puppet is cut out of the skin.
Colours are added to the cut figures. The making of colours involve boiling wood in water and the colour from these wood is everlasting.
Then mouth, lips and eyes are added to the puppet. Ornaments are drawn using special chisels which drill holes on the deer skin. To hold the puppet hands made of deer skin is attached to the puppet and a bamboo stick is attached vertically to the puppet.
Around 150 to 200 puppets are required for the 71 characters in Kamba Ramayana. The puppets are designed in sitting, standing, fighting and sleeping positions.
Performances are done by artistes who are called pulavars. Pulavar means scholar and the name is bestowed on artistes who have undergone intense training for 15 years. Pulavars have intense knowledge about puppetry and their making. They also have deep knowledge about Kamba Ramayana and tamil literature.
This ancient art form which was performed centuries ago is still practised in Kerala. There is only one family of Guru Krishnan Kutty Pulavar practising this art. They perform in Kerala and abroad and keep this old art form alive.