The lamps are lit in the Bhagavathi Temple as the dusk falls swiftly. It is not too many days to the temple festival or Pooram. The cool breeze that accompanies nightfall is a welcome relief after the heat of the summer day.
After the Pujas for the day are over and the temple is closed, the crowds of people do not disappear. They wait for something important. The sound of the chenda and cymbals shatters the quiet of the night as a man bearing a flaming torch accompanied by the oracle and the drummer proceeds to the theatre or Koothu Madam. The oil lamps are lit inside the theatre and the chenda and madalam join in sounding their percussive melody. The sound of chilanka, belled anklets rises above them all to declare the start of another episode of the stories from the epic Ramayana. The oil lamps behind cast muted ochre light on the thin, white, cotton curtain. As the story begins the voice of the reciting narrator tells a familiar tale in an unfamiliar tongue. Is that Malayalam you just heard or was it Tamil? It was in fact a unique mix of both. The actors hidden below the edge of the stage, rise up from below the edge of the stage. The filigreed silhouettes of their translucent deerskin bodies identify them. They shine with muted hues like luminous jewels in a mist. They move as the guiding hands of the puppeteers manipulate them to portray stories of valour in the fight between good and evil.
If you were witnessing the unique art of Tolpavakoothu or Shadow Puppet Theatre some decades ago, this would be true. But the tale will be quite different today. The crowds will be rather less like crowds and the colour of the puppets won’t shine through the thicker goatskin leather used today. This esoteric art was once confined to temples but of recent with appropriate encouragement from the right quarters it has been brought out into the open and is now performed on other stages. This theatre shares more similarities with the shadow puppetry of Indonesia than with that of other nations.