The Puppets of Kerala

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2008

As a result of this article, the prestigious Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris included this puppeteer in its Festival de l’Imaginaire 2009


In the high Western Ghats of Kerala the lush green hills are cloaked in mist and brilliant sunspots chase rain showers across the valleys.   Down by the coast, the tranquil waterways of the Backwaters inundate vast fields of rice but in the verdant, undulating region that lies between the soil gives life to coconut palms and rubber trees, cardamom and banana.  It seems an idyllic, time-eternal land but there is hardship hidden within its small villages, farmers ever at the mercy of monsoon rains and bountiful harvests.  And there is change, too: for centuries, the people of Kerala have set sail to trade with the world and now money sent by relatives working abroad adds second floors to modest houses and televisions to previously silent rooms.

The village of Monipally is small, the rutted road out even smaller.  We stop, suddenly, at the base of a hill thick with vegetation: the rest will be on foot, up a rough, stony incline, stooping under the arc of a green banana leaf, through backyards and around laundry hanging on lines, up, up, to an austere cement-block house, the sole decoration an altar of kaleidoscopic Hindu gods.  Moozhikkal Pankajakshi stands at the entranceway, immaculate in a red and white cotton sari; behind her, the glimmering eyes of her young grandchildren peak out from the dim interior.

Pankajakshi is the last known practitioner of nokkuvidya pavakali, or ‘look technique puppetry,’ so called because the puppets sit atop a tall pole balanced on the puppeteer’s upper lip. As a child, she would perform with her mother at Onam festivals around harvest time, traveling for weeks from one small village to another throughout Kerala.  The shows told stories from the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic central to Hinduism, with its allegorical tales of kings and battles that illuminate the four aims of life: kama (pleasure), artha (prosperity), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (liberation).  Their particular style of puppetry added spectacle to the storytelling: the balance, the dexterity, the articulation of wooden hinges and limbs by means of a string held in the puppeteer’s mouth all worked to create in the audience the tension of peril, like a trapeze act in the early years of the circus.

After she married, she discovered that her husband had secretly made puppets as a child, whittling rough forms out of balsa wood with a penknife.  Now, he made them for her: the long-tailed monkey god Hanuman, lovingly painted in blue; or the man-bird Garuda with wings of discarded X-ray film from the village medical center. But her husband passed away more than a decade ago and her art, too, is passing, one of the many simple village entertainments that engaged communities before television seduced them into staying home.  She cannot continue the shows on her own.  Three others are needed: one to sing, one to play music, and one to assist the puppeteer with the changing of characters.  It is only when aging relatives visit from far away, she says, that the old magic of performance can be reclaimed.  Still, I plead with her: I have come so far, and she is the last.

We gather outside, a mat on the ground.  Pankajakshi sits, her legs splayed out in front of her, and takes the first of the puppets from the young girl beside her.  She effortlessly balances the long pole on her lip, then stops and apologizes for being out of practice.  She begins again: the elaborately colored monkey god Hanuman seems to float above her, motionless, in prefect equilibrium.  She does not move her head; there is no need to adjust.  In performance, a singer would begin to recount a tale from the Mahabharata but now, here, there are only the sounds of the nearby forest.  Then, slowly, the wooden arm holding a scepter flexes as Pankajakshi uses her tongue to adjust the string held in her mouth.  It is a simple animation, long superseded by the wizardry of the modern world, but it was enough to tell a story once.  I glance over at her grandchildren and see that they are watching, enraptured, with a look of innocence and wonder on their faces.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about artIndia or South Asia.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of India.