You could say I am a well seasoned British festival goer. My calf muscles are sufficiently toned to lift my heavy wellies out of a mud trench. I can proficiently paint butterflies, flowers and miscellaneous swirls on faces, and can sing the odd ditty (almost tunefully) around a fire at silly time in the morning as the sun rises. Years of training in the field, however, did not prepare me for the topsy-turvy-drumming-till-the-early-hours of the festivals in Palakkad.
From dusk till dawn, for 40 nights the tolpava troupe perform an abridged Ramayana for each temple festival. For the duration of Puram (the name for festival, between December and May each year) the puppeteers become nocturnal creatures, accompanied by shadows, flickering coconut oil fueled lamps, and the memory of stories told by fathers, grandfathers, and greatgrandfathers’ fathers.
Opposite the temple is an oblong play house, a Koothumadam, with a large cloth hung over the window. Inside are sleeping puppeteers.
It is late, and all is still in the play house.
The temple ground is littered with debris from the festivities. Elephants have left a landscape of small brown mountains, and people have left a trail of odd sandles and used fireworks.
At 4:30am I hear the sound of drums and horns. By this point I have taken refuge inside the puppet theatre, to wait for this moment. Outside, over the debris; brown mountains, fireworks, and odd shoes, a small group walk towards us. They process from the temple in a neatly formed square. They bring fire, clink bells, beat drums, and blow horns. In the middle is the Oracle. Kali.
He is from a heritage of Oracles called Velichappadi. Kali has embodied his father, grandfather, and greatgrandfathers’ fathers. She wears a red garland and red skirt, and carries a sword. Snake bells jinglejangle at her feet. She has long black hair with which she whips the space as she moves. And she moves with the integrity and authority of a man embodying a goddess for 100s of years.
The group proceed towards the play house through the empty grounds. They drum, clink bells, stop to sing and blow horns, and Kali dances and struts her stroppy stuff. They proceed a little further before going through the process again: drum. Clink. Stop. Sing. Blow. Dance. Strut. Drum clink stop sing blow dance strut drumclinkstopsingblowdancestrut
The ritual goes on for about an hour. Puja is performed, water and rice thrown, and the torch is finally given to the puppeteers. Once the oil lamps are lit the procession and oracle disappear. However, after the episode of Ramayana has begun, and Rama and Sita have arrived safety home in Ayodhya, there is still a faint echo of Kali’s cries and the gentle thud of the drums that make their way from the heart of the temple.
This is where I start to loose an understanding of what the pulavars are making with their puppets. I realise that this is not a play, not theatre, and not anything I can relate to. Within the context of the festival the puppetry becomes more complex in meaning. It is outside my cultural framework, and I now start to see how restricting my western-clad-perspective actually is.