Pulavar bumped into his acquaintance Narayanan at the temple. Narayanan’s red-rimmed eyes caught his attention.
“Are you alright?”
“I haven’t been able to perform at a single concert all year long. I have taken up manual labour to feed my family. My violin lies in a corner like an abandoned child.”
Pulavar left the temple with a heavy heart. He hobbled homeward; age had caught up with him. He unconsciously pinched the bridge of his mask, as he heard a sneeze in the distance.
Shadows everywhere. Of disease. of death. Of hunger. Of poverty. Of despair.
Ironically, the shadows were what he had known all his life. His grandfather had inducted him into the family business of shadow puppeteering. The shadows had welcomed him into their comforting clasp ever since he turned eight.
“Shadows cannot be wet by water or burnt by fire. They are indestructible and indefatigable. Master their rhythm, and they will dance for you.”
Pulavar had studied the Kamba Ramayanam and classical music. It had taken years to master the art of the shadows. Perfection didn’t come easy. And when it did, it took him to places- to Delhi, to Moscow, and to Budapest. It won him accolades that adorned his walls.
Times had changed. Performances dwindled to the annual ones at the temple festival. And this year? The festival itself was cancelled. The arts were dying.
Lost in contemplation, Pulavar reached home. He went straight to his treasure-trove. His collection of puppets; the alluring Seetha, the malevolent Ravana, the compassionate Rama, the valiant Hanuman. Crafted out of leather and embellished with love. His fingers traced the contours of each one.
As he stood there, an idea began to take shape. He summoned his grandson, Vijayan.
The white translucent cloth was spread upright in the courtyard. Pulavar lit twenty-one lamps behind the screen. He gathered his puppets behind the screen. His troupe got ready with their instruments. Vijayan took position in front of the screen to record the performance.
This was their Magnus Opus. Their Swan Song.
The narrative was mythology interspersed with the contemporary.
Ravana represented the pestilence. Seetha, humanity. Rama, the healer. The Sanjeevani, a vaccine. The puppets went to war donning masks. The shadows danced, and how! A dance of life and death. A dance of valour, of courage, of hope.
Vijayan stood mesmerized. At the end of the electrifying performance, Pulavar and his troupe, came forward with their hands folded.
“We hope you enjoyed the performance. Our livelihoods are at stake on account of the pandemic. Please help donate.”
The video became an overnight viral sensation. The icing on the cake was that the State Government had requested to use it for generating awareness. They garnered many donations. This would assist the artistes of the town by keeping them afloat in the short term. Encores were requested.
Pulavar sighed contentedly. The shadows had come to his rescue, yet again.
Where there are shadows, can the light be far behind?
TholPaavaKoothu is a type of shadow puppetry that is practiced in Kerala. It is performed with leather puppets in temples, and usually depicts scenes from the Ramayanam. It is performed by a puppeteer who is given the honorific title of Pulavar. It is believed that shadow puppetry originated when Bhagawathy, the Mother Goddess, missed the slaying of Ravana by Rama and she wanted to see it enacted again.
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