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    A form of string puppetry practised by members of the Nair community in Kerala, noolpavakoothu nearly disappeared in the years following Independence, before it was revived in the 1990s and 2000s.

    Historically, noolpavakoothu was patronised by the Cochin royal family, with the region of Tripunithura in Ernakulam district – the seat of the former state of Cochin – becoming an important centre of the puppetry form. While the puppeteers came from Nair families, the puppets themselves were kept in the custody of the royal family when not in use. However, with the disestablishment of the state of Cochin in 1949, and the subsequent collapse of the system of patronage in the 1950s, noolpavakoothu suffered a rapid decline.

    Unlike tholpavakoothu, a form of shadow puppetry also practised in Kerala, noolpavakoothu was not performed in the traditional performance huts or koothu-madam, but was a part of temple festivals and celebrations. One such event was the annual temple festival in Tripunithura, which featured a noolpavakoothu performance that was staged over eight days within the temple complex. Around forty to forty five puppets were used to present stories from local folklore and from epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Performances based on the latter were preceded by comedic episodes, featuring vidushaka – puppets representing jesters – and a two-faced puppet representing a female dancer. Many of the puppets used during the performance were designed to resemble kathakali dancers.

    The puppets of noolpavakoothu were traditionally between 2 and 2.5 ft in height, with joints at the neck, hands and knees. These joints allowed for a wide range of motion, including subtle movements of the head. Depending on the character depicted, the puppets had between six to eight strings, and some were made without legs. For those without legs, puppeteers would have to dance to manipulate the puppet accordingly.

    G Venu, who has been instrumental in the revival of tholpavakoothu, has also worked to revive noolpavakoothu by researching and documenting historical practices, as well as experimenting with the design of puppets and performance styles. The theatre Samanwaya Pavanataka Sangham, established in 1993 by master puppeteer and artist TP Kunjiraman, is also notable for its traditional puppet plays, including noolpavakoothu, staged in Malayalam.

    Other forms of string puppetry from Kerala include yakshagana bommalata, performed in the Kasargod district in northern Kerala, and nokku vidya, a now rare form of puppetry in which the puppets are placed on a stick that is balanced between the upper lip and the nose of a puppeteer.


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