Philippe Petit’s new act and a Keralan puppeteer

Philippe Petit is best known for his high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974 and subsequent appearance in the 2008 documentary “Man On Wire” about the event, in which Petit was either charmingly puckish or maddeningly smug depending on your perspective.  Now, Petit has a new act: a one-man show called “Wireless!” in which he stays on the ground and entertains in other ways.  The photo above is from the New York Times and it reminds me of a remarkable woman named Moozhikkal Pankajakshi I met in rural Kerala, in southern India, who is the last known practitioner of an unusual form of puppetry called nokkuvidya pavakali, or ‘look technique puppetry,’ which involves puppets on long sticks balanced on her upper lip.  This was once a common village entertainment in Kerala before television and — as with Petit’s Twin Towers tightrope walk, though on a more intimate scale — the balancing act adds narrative tension to the familiar folkloric tales represented by the characters.

At the time I found her, Pankajakshi was almost entirely forgotten even within Kerala: she lived on a hillside accessible only on foot, some distance from the nearest stone path and several kilometers from any village.  A Keralan friend who worked as a journalist in the city of Cochin had told me about her — as much a rumor as a known fact –and encouraged me to find her because he recalled this particular type of puppetry from his childhood in a village.  Pankajakshi was surprised, naturally, that a foreigner had come to find her on this hillside and embarrassed that she would not be able to put on a full performance because she did not have the requisite number of collaborators.  But she did demonstrate her technique for a small audience that consisted of me, a translator, and two of her grandchildren, who watched with absolute awe on their faces even though they had seen such a show many times before.

I wrote and photographed an article about her for Le Monde d’Hermès — it can be seen here — which is published in a dozen languages and distributed around the world.  It appeared in the autumn of 2008 and some months later I was contacted by the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris saying they wanted to include this puppeteer in their Festival de l’Imaginaire 2009 and asking if I could assist in reaching her.  And so a woman who lived on a hillside in Kerala, her art almost forgotten, now found herself with an invitation to perform in France before an audience that might never had heard of her had my Keralan friend not recalled with such fondness the village entertainments of his youth.


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