It might be difficult to imagine that an ancient form of shadow puppetry from Kerala can have any connection with a street theatre format based on manga art from Japan, but a the the held sixth edition of Kathakar — International Storytellers’ Festival in New Delhi, both Tholpavakoothu and Kamishibai shared an interesting time line. While the former is based on a 12th century text based on Valmiki’s Ramayana, the latter is a 12-century Japanese street theatre art form, that has its roots in the Buddhist practice of telling stories through pictures.
Tholpavakoothu and Kamishibai both narrate stories in a way that is a feast for the eyes — one narrating stories through shadows, another creating nothing less than an animation movie itself, with cleverly timed narration and fast-changing manga images. The two were part of the three-day festival, which saw children as well as adults sitting with rapt attention watching the storytellers perform.
BEHIND THE SCREEN
“Shadows can tell beautiful stories, they have no limitations. You can create a deer, a lion, a man and even a war — all through shadows,” says Vipin Vishwanatha Pulavar, a shadow puppeteer with Tholpavakoothu Sangam, from Kerala’s Shornur district. The troupe was here to perform the Kamba Ramayana, a version of the epic written by 12th century Tamil poet Kamban.
In Kerala, where art forms like Kathakali thrive on intricate facial expressions and body language, Tholpavakoothu just uses the movements of the puppets to narrate Rama’s compassion, Hanuman’s loyalty, Sita’s anguish, Ravana’s ferocity and other vivid expressions.
Tholpavakoothu means the dance of the dolls. Traditionally, the religious art form was performed in temples, in koothumadams or 40ft tall permanent stages. According to mythology, Bhadrakali or goddess Kali, after killing Darikan the demon, asked Shiva if he had watched her defeating the asura. He replied that he was instead watching the victory of Rama over Ravana, the great war of good over evil. Goddess Kali then insisted that she wanted to watch the war too. And for her, temples in Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts re-enacted the epic Ramayana.
Shadow puppetry is said to have originated in India and China, and followed the spread of Buddhism to countries like Thailand and Germany. Twenty-four-year-old Vipin believes this art form can be credited with the origin of films in India!
Tholpavakoothu Sangam, the last surviving troupe of the 30-odd families previously, performs in around 108 temples across Kerala. The puppets, which were earlier made of deerskin, are now made of goatskin, with sticks controlling individual limbs. According to K Vishwanatha Pulavar, the head of the troupe and Vipin’s father, more than 3,000 shlokas in Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam are recited in the background.
The recitation is accompanied by musical instruments such as chenda, maddalam or ezhupara (types of percussion instruments), shankha (conch), cherukuzhal (double reed wind music instrument) and ilathalam (cymbals). However, when Vipin joined his father in 2011, he introduced Western music to depict movements. “The music has been added carefully without losing the traditional touch. Now there are no language barriers stopping people from enjoying their performances,” he said.
While a Tholpavakoothu performance creates magic behind the screen, Japan’s Kamishibai is all about changing scenes and placards in front of the audience to tell a story. Traditionally, the ‘rakugo’ or the narrator gently narrates a story to the audience using about 10 placards on which manga images or animes are drawn. Spice Arthur 702 a Kamishibai group, however, tells their stories in a slightly different way. The group uses delightful music, a lot of manga images’ placards that are swiftly changed, to keep the audience on the edge of their seat all through the performance. According to Naomi, a member of the group, while the traditional Kamshibai is performed by just one person and no music, the avante garde group has three performers. They narrate the stories in Japanese and talk about almost everything — from Star Wars to Japan’s indigenous Issun Samurai tales.
Kamishibai is a 12-century Japanese street theatre art form, and has its roots in E-toki — the Japanese Buddhist practice of telling stories through pictures. During the spread of Buddhism, Japanese monks used pictorial scrolls to teach the people about the religion, which is how E-toki originated. These pictorial scrolls are called emaki.
Spice Arthur’s improvised Kamishibai, complete with engaging live music and rapidly changing placards, aims at making the audience feel like they are watching an animation movie. “The traditional Kamishibai storytelling is gentle and slow, similar to how a mother narrates stories to her child. Spice Arthur 702 tries to involve not just the children but the adults too, with its style,” said Yuki, who writes and narrates stories for the group.
The members identify their form of storytelling as different from the Indian forms of storytelling. “Indian storytelling has a sense of grandeur and a lot more drama than Kamishibai,” said Naomi. Nevertheless, both Tholpavakoothu and Kamishibai narrate stories with moving pictures that long pre-date the flickering screens on our palms and TV sets, and yet manage to captivate the audience in a world of its own.