By: Suyash Gabriel
In 1968, Gopal Venu, a young Kathakali artiste from Kerala, travelled to Maihar in Madhya Pradesh for a performance and was awestruck that an entire village had been musically trained by one man — sarod maestro Allauddin Khan. “Some of India’s greatest musicians had learnt under him, including Ravi Shankarji and Pannalal Ghosh. It was then that I realised that it is possible to do miraculous things with very little money when it comes to art,” he says. Inspired to preserve the traditional arts after meeting Khan, Venu began reviving Kakkarissinatakam, a satirical dance-drama from Kerala, based on the legends of lord Shiva. He started Natanakairali, a research centre, in 1975, to promote and revive dying performance art forms.
A Kutiyattam exponent, Venu has extensively researched and trained in another performance form, called Pavakathakali or Puppet Kathakali. He is in Delhi currently to teach Kutiyattam at the National School of Drama and will moderate a documentary screening titled Pavakathali–The Glove Puppets of Kerala on July 25. The 56-minute documentary, made by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, traces the history, the challenges and the efforts to rejuvenate this form of puppetry and includes performances by Venu and his troupe.
Traditionally done by Andipandarams, a community that migrated from Andhra Pradesh to Kerala in the 18th century, Pavakathakali uses glove puppets as a medium to tell stories and fables. When Kathakali became popular in the 18th century, the nomadic community began dressing up their puppets in Kathakali costumes and make-up. They also adapted attakatha, the narrative of Kathakali in their performances, thus creating a new form of puppetry. The puppets represent miniature versions of Kathakali dancers, wearing traditional make-up as seen in performances. The Pavakathali puppeteers let their hands do the talking.
“Puppetry is in every culture. It makes diverse cultures accessible for everyone, especially children. In Japan they have Bunraku, a puppet version of the Kabuki dance form, and there is the Marionette theatre as well. Puppetry and human theatre are always different. Humans have expressions and gestures, but puppets express these emotions differently. In Pavakathakali, they capture the spirit of Kathakali in a different way. The emotions are tangible because the energy directly flows from the body to the puppet,” says the 69-year-old.
A student of Kathakali since he was 13, Venu learned Kutiyattam under Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awardee Ammannur Madhavachakyar. Over the years, Venu has brought an array of dance forms including Kutiyattam, Nangiar Koothu and Pavakathakali under the umbrella of Natankairali. Venu’s wife, Nirmala Panikar, and his daughter, Kapila Venu, both of whom are renowned Mohiniyattam and Kutiyattam performers respectively, are also executive directors of Natanakairali.
Venu is currently working on a Kutiyattam version of The Ramayana, which he says will take place over a course of 300 performances in temples across Kerala in four years. “Such a long play requires hard work and time. I have already begun training the dancers and preparing them for the continued…