Balancing tradition and modernism for the future of Tholpavakoothu  

Pictured is exhibit curator, Rahul Koonathara. The Ballard Institute for Puppetry, located in Downtown Storrs, recently held a forum about the Indian tradition of shadow puppetry. Photo by Ballard Institute

Last night, the Ballard Institute for Puppetry in Downtown Storrs held a forum on traditional Indian shadow puppetry. The forum’s featured speaker was Rahul Koonathara, a UConn graduate student and 12th-generation puppeteer from Kerala, India.  

In the forum, Koonathara discussed the Tholpavakoothu puppetry tradition and how the new generation of puppeteers has experimented with modern techniques to ensure its ​bright ​future in entertainment. 

Tholpavakoothu is an ancient form of puppetry, originating in Karala, circa 300 C.E. The name is a compound word in the Tamil language of Southern India, combining three terms: thol (leather), pavai (doll) and koothu (play or drama show). As this breakdown suggests, this style calls for puppeteers to use leather dolls and perform behind a specially built screen to put on performances. These performances are usually held in temples or the center of villages in Kerala. 

Since Tholpavakoothu is usually performed in temples, a large part of the conversation revolved around maintaining tradition while trying to apply modern methods to the practice in order to further its appeal. Koonathara talked about how the year was split up into two seasons. In the first season, his temple only puts on the traditional shows revolving around ancient Indian tales as well as pieces with religious relevance. In the second season, there are performances conducted in the same way they have been for centuries. However, during the second season, he also experiments with modern technology and new storylines in his puppetry.  

As part of this modernization of Tholpavakoothu, Koonathara has been experimenting with technologies such as artificial intelligence and videography. During the Q&A portion of the forum, the speaker discussed how he was currently in the process of implementing an Artificial Intelligence technology into his puppets and program them to perform various activities, and that he was excited to see what the success of this experiment would mean for members of his profession going further. Also​,​ the introduction of videography and social media into his projects came about in response to the ​COVID-19​ ​pandemic​ during which he began performing shows on ​YouTube​. This broadened his audience globally and​​ allowed him and his family to gain popularity which would have been otherwise unattainable.  

According to Koonathara, the modernization of this practice accomplished its desired effect since people who are exposed to the experimental content tend to come back for the traditional shows. In conjunction with this forum, the Institute now features an exhibit focusing on Tholpavakoothu puppetry, complete with displays of previously used puppets and pictures of shows and schools of puppetry in Kerala.  

They will be holding another discussion​ in the near future,​ this time focused on Chinese-influenced Indonesian shadow puppetry on Oct​.​ 27. ​You don’t want to miss what is to come! If you are interested, the traditional Indian shadow puppetry gallery will be on display through Dec. 17 at the Ballard Institute. ​For more information on the exhibit, institute or future events, you can find them online at

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