Eleven generations of family members established a legacy that almost stopped at Rahul Koonathara.
Despite his father’s success, his parents urged him to leave the family business, take up a profession that pays better, commands more respect, provides a better life. But Koonathara says he felt drawn to the art form of his Indian ancestors and the weight of 300 years of tradition.
Even with an undergraduate degree in physics, Koonathara ’24 MA, now a graduate student in UConn’s Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies program, is a 12th generation shadow puppeteer – one who’s learned to respect the past while looking to the future.
“Our whole motive is to continue this art form by whatever means we can,” he says of his family. “To do that, we must do it differently, and that’s what pushed me to come here to learn about what’s going on around the globe. My hope is to study what my ancestors were doing and write about it from an insider’s perspective, while considering how the tradition has changed and continues to change.”
His work starts with “Tradition and Revolution in Indian Shadow Puppetry,” this fall’s exhibition at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, which Koonathara curated to share his family’s history and the story of how his grandfather and father began to revolutionize this ancient art form. It came together with help from dramatic arts professor Matthew Isaac Cohen, his academic advisor, and John Bell, director of the Ballard.
As Koonathara walks through the exhibition, he talks about how his ancestors used to perform the Ramayana story in a puppet theater just outside the temples of his home state of Kerala, India, with their two-dimensional puppets dancing in front of 21 oil lamps to make the shadows come alive.
For as long as 71 consecutive nights, the men in his family would perform from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., he explains, eight hours to convey an epic story that includes gods and goddesses, demons and war. Townspeople treated the puppets like gods, or holy figures, and the puppeteers like priests, calling them Pulavar and giving them offerings for their work.
But in the 1960s, something changed.
Koonathara’s grandfather, K.L. Krishnan Kutty Pulavar, saw audience attendance start to decline and recognized that fewer people were able to attend a single performance that lasted all night. He moved performances to secular locations, away from outlying Hindu temples, to make them more accessible and shortened the show to an hour to accommodate the busy-ness of life.
“My grandfather was a revolutionary. When he died, my father as the eldest son continued the momentum,” Koonathara says. “He broke away from Hindu storytelling and started telling innovative, modern narratives about people like Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ.”
Koonathara’s father, Padmashri Ramachandra Pulavar, continued his own father’s work and began to teach puppeteers how to make shadow puppets, something they never did, to increase interest and broaden the creative base.
He also started to teach the nuances of shadow puppetry to those who once would have been considered outsiders and did something his ancestors only two generations before never would have considered: He brought women into the craft.
“Before my father, women were not allowed to perform or even touch the puppets,” Koonathara says. “My father brought in my mother, Rajalakshmi, and my sister, Rajitha, who is the first Indian female performer of shadow puppetry and who has begun performing with an all-women team.”
With photographs, family treasurers, and puppets from the Walter Fairservis collection at the Ballard, “Tradition and Revolution” puts on display brightly colored characters, sitting, standing, reclining, or fighting, the four poses of shadow puppets from southwestern India.
The puppet Sri Rama Pattabhishekam – protected under glass and backlit from behind to highlight a full scene from the finale of a Ramayana performance with gods, goddesses, saints, and others on a single panel – looks more like an incredibly detailed oil painting than a typical shadow puppet, by itself with bamboo rods attached to appendages for manipulation.
Created by Koonathara’s brother, Rajeev Pulavar, it’s an example of what the next generation hopes to do.
“This piece doesn’t have a puppet to manipulate, but it still speaks to you,” Koonathara says. “We’ve started making a lot of puppets like this to sell as art for people’s homes, so the puppet maker can make a small income.”
He continues, “Shadow puppetry is not considered a premiere art form in India. We’ve struggled to continue its traditions, to bring it to the masses, to prove it is relevant to tell modern narratives.”
And what they’re doing might just be working.
Koonathara’s brother, he says, made it through five rounds in the most recent season of the India’s Got Talent television show and performed contemporary stories, like India’s landing of a spacecraft on the moon in August.
The family also has opened the Tholpavakoothu & Puppet Centre in Kerala to teach those who are interested in puppet making, puppet performing, or puppet storytelling, Koonathara says. And because there are few with Ph.D.s in puppetry, he wants to add his name to the list and focus his research on how it can continue another 300 years.
At the Ballard, one recent afternoon, he steps up to a shadow puppet stage built for visitors to try their hand at making the shadow of a deer or rabbit or horse dance across a screen.
He picks a red deer puppet, with bamboo sticks attached to move its head, neck, and body, and holds it against the muslin screen, just below a row of electric lights. He sings a traditional song as he makes the deer somersault.
“I don’t regret my background in physics because I understand the kinetics of how to make the puppets move and how to get the light to reflect just right,” he says. “It’s influenced how I approach puppetry and how I think about using shadow puppetry and machine learning with other graduate students from UConn’s electrical and computer engineering department.
“Shadow puppetry is a living tradition,” he adds, “and I come from a traditional family that is doing modern things. From the time I was young in the late 1990s, I’ve heard that shadow puppetry is a dying art form. We have to come up with a way to keep it alive.”
“Tradition and Revolution in Indian Shadow Puppetry” is on display at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry through Dec. 17. On Friday, Nov. 10, at 6:30 p.m., the Ballard will hold A Celebration of Indian Performing Arts, featuring dancers, drummers, and UConn Sanskriti, a student group that celebrates traditional Indian art forms. Admission is free, but reservations are required and can be made online.