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‘Nokkuvidya Pavakali’s’ lone practitioner – The Hindu

A documentary film that puts the spotlight on the form of puppet theatre in Kerala that has only one practitioner left

Freelance journalist-filmmaker Reshmi Radhakrishnan first heard about Nokkuvdiya Pavakkali, a form of puppet theatre, in 2017. “What was even more shocking or surprising was, Monipally, where the practitioners live, is barely 15-odd kilometres from my hometown, Ramapuram, in Kottayam district. And I had not heard about it,” she says. Curious, she travelled to Monipally to visit one of the last two surviving practitioners of the art form: Moozhikkal Pankajakshi.

Taken by the performance aspect, she says that the ‘art’ part of it caught her eye. Later, when she thought more about it, she realised its significance. “The art form has sociological importance; it is a Dravidian art form. The artistic aspect aside, there is the cultural part too that makes it imperative that the art form is preserved.” It resulted in her 2020 documentary film Nokkuvidya, recently screened at Kochi. She earlier wrote about it.

Reshmi recollects her first impressions. “I felt bad about what I saw there,” she says. The wooden puppets were stored in a box under a bed in the house that Pankajakshi lived in with her daughter and granddaughter. “It did not look easy, looking at their means. Here they were preserving an art form despite the challenges… that struck a chord!” she says.

Unlike other forms of puppetry, where the puppeteer uses his hands, here the puppets are handled on a stick, balanced on the base of the nose of the puppet. Not only does it demand dexterity but also practised eye-hand co-ordination.

In this case, the puppeteer, a woman, sits on the floor and uses her hands to control the puppets, while the other group members narrate the story, invariably from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata.

A lost art

“It used to be performed as entertainment by members of Kerala’s Velan Panicker community. Once upon a time the repertoire was not limited to puppet theatre, there were other forms such as juggling. But Nokkuvidya Pavakali is of special importance because practitioners are women. Other forms, in the past, did not allow women to touch the puppets,” she says.

Reshmi Radhakrishnan  

Octogenarian Pankajakshi, a Padma Shri awardee, had been practising the artform for more than 70-odd years. Over time as practitioners dwindled, she hoped to teach to others so that the artform would live on. Unable to find anybody, she convinced her then 13-year-old granddaughter Renjini KS to be her student. Now in her early 20s, Renjini, a college student, is possibly the sole practitioner of the art form.

“Things are slowly changing; the troupe is being invited to perform [before COVID-19 struck]. Under the guidance of Natana Kairali (Irinjalakuda), they have been educated about the significance of the form; besides guidance promoting it,” says Tripunithura-based Reshmi. A research centre for Koodiyattam, Natana Kairali also teaches Mohiniyattam, Pavakathakali, and Nangiarkoothu besides conducting workshops related to the performing arts.

Her interactions with Pankajakshi, during the course of the making of the documentary, showed her another side of the artist. “It showed me how art elevates a woman, I found her very different from her contemporaries [women]. She leads a troupe that comprises men, the income and position from what she does. Her awareness of herself, in the context, was interesting.”

More than as a documentary, Reshmi sees it as a resource or an archive. She spent time on research, speaking and consulting with experts such as Geetha Devi, professor at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady. As this was her first experience, Reshmi turned to friends to help her with filming and the technical aspects of getting a film ready.

The documentary has been screened at festivals in India and abroad, and is still doing the rounds at the festival circuit.

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