The art of shadow puppetry in Kerala is known as Tholpava koothu, it is one of the oldest art forms in the region and has many interesting stories woven around its origins. We found one during a recent trip to Kerala that Dr Jayarajan who runs a centre for folklore studies in the Kasargod district told us about. This story traces its origins to the Pulavar community, the community that holds the knowledge and still practices the art of shadow puppetry, although it is fast disappearing from public spaces.
Darika was a ferocious demon who lived around the same time that Ram and Sita were living out their exile. He was an ardent devotee of Brahma, the creator god and spent hours in penance. Darika’s power stemmed from a boon from Brahma, which said that he could not be killed by any man. That virtually made Darika invincible and extremely arrogant. His writ ran large over the people and there came a time when matters got terribly out of hand. The people went to Shiva, asking him to step in and save them.
Shiva devised a plan. No man would be able to kill Darika, so Brahma had said. But what about a woman? And so Kali or Bhadrakali, as the form that she is worshipped in in many temples is known as, was summoned. She was told about the grave trouble that the demon had been causing the people and she agreed to bring him down.
Kali and Darika fought a fierce battle and finally she brought an end to the demon king. This battle is the story enacted in folk dances in the region. But that is not the end of our tale.
Kali returned victorious and weary to glorious tales of a war, not the one she had fought, but the one between Ram and Ravana. Everyone was talking about it and Kali felt terrible at having missed it and so the Pulavar community re-staged the entire battle for her using shadow puppets. This is the origin of puppetry and the Pulavars were the first puppeteers. Even today, the community upholds the traditions, in select places.
The performance is always dedicated to Bhagavati, worshiped by the people of Kerala as the Mother Goddess. It is performed during the months of January to May at specially constructed theatres in front of the temple.