Creating Conversations: The Rama Story as Puppet Play in Kerala
Stuart H. Blackburn
The Rama story in India is an oral tradition. Although texts do stabilize certain variants, and may engender other variants, the diversity of the tradition—the many Ramayanas —is a function of the many genres, the many languages, and the many occasions on which the Rama story is orally performed. By tale-tellers and epic-singers, temple pundits and schoolteachers, and any number of unknown tellers and tellings, the story is spoken, chanted, sung, mimed, retold, and explained. Several contributions to this volume draw attention to this variety of tellers and tellings, and implicitly to their audiences. Here, too, is diversity. The audience may be the immediate listeners, whose role in performance varies from that of active participant (as respondent to a spoken line) to silent spectator. Some audiences are physically absent, such as patrons, who are meant only to overhear the performance or learn of it later. The audience may also be a god or goddess, as when a text is ritually performed with no human onlookers. And combinations of these audiences often coexist in a single performance event.
Audiences seem especially important in the Rama story tradition. Several major texts, including the Ramcaritmanas and the Adhyatma Ramayana , are cast in dialogue form, Siva narrating the story to Parvati. Even in Valmiki's variant, Narada summarizes the first chapter to the poet. Whether or not this focus on narration offers further evidence for the essentially oral nature of the Ramayana , these texts include another type of audience: an internal audience, created by tellers within their text. This internal audience is what I found in studying performances of the shadow puppet play in Kerala. The puppeteers did not perform for a conventional audience, since few people, often absolutely no one, remained throughout the night to hear their chanting and exegesis of the Rama story; instead, they created conversations among themselves.
The Kerala shadow puppet play itself illustrates the diversity of the
Ramayana tradition in that it performs a classical Tamil text in a Malayalam folk context. The plays are presented in a long series of overnight performances, often running twenty or more nights, as part of the annual festival in central Kerala to the goddess Bhagavati. Although the puppet stage, called a "drama house," is built outside the temple proper, the performances are explicitly linked to the temple: its lamp is used to light the little lamps inside the drama house that cast the puppet shadows on the screen; the screen is handed to the puppeteers by the temple oracle-priest on the first night of performance; each night the performance is blessed by the oracle-priest; and each night hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individuals make donations to the puppeteers (in advance of the performance), who in return will ask the goddess to bless them, cure their leg sores, return runaway cousins, or restore a brother's lost livestock. From this public perspective, the puppet plays are recitations, an extended verbal ritual (puja ) intended to win benefits for its patrons.
Textually, the puppet plays are based largely on Kampan's epic poem, the Iramavataram , composed in the Chola court during the twelfth century. Of Kampan's more than 12,000 verses, the puppeteers sing between 750 and 1,150, depending on whether the story is begun in the Forest Book or the War Book and on how many nights the puppeteers perform. Approximately one-fifth of the verses, however, are drawn from unidentified sources and introduce episodes and motifs not found in Kampan. All the verses are carefully memorized, syllable by syllable, and recalled in performance by the initial word of the first line. Following each chanted verse, the puppeteers launch into their own commentary, sometimes glossing the verse line by line but more often digressing into mythological stories, grammatical explication, or improvised dialogue between the epic characters. All this is carried out by a small group of three to five men, who sit on wooden benches or woven mats and manipulate the puppets behind a white cloth screen.
Outside there is an open space, where a few people lie asleep on mats, sometimes waking to watch for a moment before dozing off again. Puppeteers speak of a "golden age," before movies, videos, and television, when large crowds watched their performances. This claim is not entirely fabrication. Even today, when the puppet play coincides with a popular entertainment event such as a folk drama or a fair, the open space in front of the drama house is crowded; perhaps a hundred people will watch the puppets for an hour before drifting off. It is also true that at particular sites certain episodes regularly muster crowds of fifty or more, most of whom remain mostly awake for most of the night. However, these are the exceptions: usually the Kerala puppeteers chant their verses and expound their interpretations to no one beyond the cloth screen.
Several aspects of the puppet play work to discourage a conventional audience. The language of the verses is an allusive medieval Tamil, read by
scholars only with the aid of written commentaries and scarcely understood by the local Malayalam-speakers; nor is the commentary (delivered in a dialect of Tamil heavily influenced by Malayalam, the local language) a conversational idiom. Second, the puppet play is primarily a commentarial rather than narrative tradition: the burden of performance is the convoluted interpretation of the verses, which tire even the epic character forced to listen to them, as we shall learn below. Third, the dominant role of commentary produces performances that are static, more like a frieze than a film. The slow pace of these performances was critically noted in 1935 by the first recorded Western observer of the tradition and again in the late 1940s by a Kerala scholar, who made this recommendation:
If the olapavakuthu [puppet play] is to survive (and it would be a great pity if it did not), it will apparently have to undergo considerable renovation in the reduction of exposition, a change that would have the desirable effect of quickening the movements of the figures on the screen and bringing the kuthu [play] nearer the natural desire of people for rhythmic representation.
That this appraisal fails to appreciate the less obvious dimensions of the puppeteers' art is what I hope to demonstrate in this essay.
Any potential audience is also distanced by the medium of shadow puppetry, which drops a screen between the performers and listeners. This is not true of shadow puppetry in Java and Bali, for example, where the screen is free standing and the performers are open to public view; indeed, patrons and favored members of the community are invited to sit behind the screen to fully appreciate the puppeteers' art. In Kerala, however, the stage is a permanent building and the screen seals the puppeteers within, cut off from the public in a private space of their own.
This divide, I believe, deeply affects the Kerala puppeteers' telling of the Rama story. Specifically, because these puppet plays have virtually no external listeners or viewers (audience in the ordinary sense), they have generated internal audiences. On the outside the performances are a ritual act; but on the inside they are an uninterrupted conversation, both within the text and among the puppeteers themselves. In their telling of the Rama story, talking is no less important than the events of the tale. Even in the eventful War Book, which dominates the puppet play, the martial action is defused through dialogue. Puppets do fight battles, weapons are hurled, even stuck into puppets' chests, but the art of the Kerala puppeteers is the art of conversation.
In adapting a medieval epic poem to shadow puppet play, the Kerala tradition has created several levels of conversation. On the textual level, the leather puppets speak in three separate dialogues: as Brahmins, at the opening of every performance; as epic characters speaking through verse and commentary; and, intermittently, as gods commenting on the epic action.
The second of these conversations, that between epic characters, is the most important, but all three contribute to the total dialogic effect of the puppet performance.
The very first words of every performance are spoken by two Brahmin puppets who dance around the Ganesa puppet pinned to the center of the screen, a feature not found in Kampan's text. Their presence in Kerala is an instructive innovation because the puppet play might have been framed differently—narrated by the single voice of one of the famous puppeteer-poets saluted in the introductory devotional songs, for instance. Instead the performance is framed by a dialogue between the two Brahmin puppets, named Muttuppattar and Gangaiyati. Once the initial songs to Ganesa and Sarasvati have faded away, Muttuppattar speaks to his companion and welcomes other Brahmins (not represented by puppets):
"Welcome, Gangaiyati, welcome."
"I am here, Muttuppattar."
"Is Kuncappappattar here?"
"I am here also, Muttuppattar."
"Has Comacippattar arrived?"
"I have come, Muttuppattar."
"We have all come chanting the name 'Govinda-Rama,' the most powerful name in the world."
"How is that?"
Muttuppattar's answer to this question leads to a description of Hindu cosmology and local sacred geography, ending with an enumeration of the fruits of devotion. After forty-five minutes of invocations and preliminaries, the Brahmin puppets are removed. Then the first narrative verse—spoken by one epic character to another—is sung and the commentary is added, as part of that dialogue. This is followed by more verses and more commentary, over and over again, until the early morning. In this way the Brahmin puppets set in motion a conversation that continues throughout the telling of the Rama story, ending only when the performance itself comes to a close.
The peculiar nature of that conversation is illustrated by the opening scene of the Kumbhakarna episode, translated below. Kumbhakarna, Ravana's brother, has taken the field after Ravana's humiliating defeat by Rama the previous day. As the demon warrior and his elephant army enter the screen from the left, Rama and his army of monkeys stand on the right. The lead puppeteer introduces the scene, chants a verse from Kampan, in which llama addresses Vibhisana (Ravana's other brother, who defected to Rama's side) and then begins his commentary:
"With thirteen thousand soldiers, Kumbhakarna entered the field, and from a distance Rama saw his figure emerge. He turned to Vibhisana."
"Who stands there, shoulders so wide
that many days would pass for the eyes
to scan from right to left? Is he
a battle-hungry warrior? Or Mount Meru on legs?"
"Vibhisana, yesterday we defeated Ravana and his two hundred thousand demon soldiers; I felled him, knocking off his crown. Now he knows that he cannot win, and I am wondering, 'Will he release Sita and end this war? Or will he send more demons to be killed?' But look, over there! Some huge warrior has taken the field—god, he is enormous! Even to run your eyes from his right shoulder to his left would take days! He cannot be human-born. Looks more like a mountain risen from the earth, like Mount Meru, flanked by the cosmic elephants, with the nine planets circling his head. Who is this mountain-man?"
"Rama, look closely—what do you see?"
"I don't know. Could it be Ravana in disguise—changing his twenty arms and ten heads for these two arms and single head? Is this his maya frightening us again? Tell me, tell me quickly."
"Listen, noble one (ariya ), he is the younger brother of the raja of
this earth's (ati talam ) beautiful Lanka, and he is my older brother;
Wearing anklets of black death and wielding a cruel trident,
he's called Kumbhakarna, oh, lord of victory."
"Rama, notice that the poet calls you ariya or 'noble one.' We also call you pujyan , which means not only 'worthy' but something else as well. It means 'nothingness,' a cipher. True, we add, say, ten to twenty to find out a total. But more useful is a symbol of nothingness, and everything at the same time That's you, Rama. Nameless, formless, you are the unknowable brahman , the hidden essence. You are svayambhu , self-generating reality.
"Of course, some will ask, 'Why worship this nothingness?' Our answer is that the nothing takes form to protect us. You, too, assume the eight dispositions (guna ): love, compassion, and so on, like the rest of us. So what separates you from us? Well, the Saiva texts describe three layers of body: visible, subtle, and inner. The visible body is that known to the naked eye. Inside is another, the subtle body, which can be known by yoga and meditation; and inside it is a still more subtle body, which is known only by wisdom. Humans and gods alike have these three layers, but there is a difference. All the outer bodies of all the beings in the world equal the outer body of god; all the inner bodies of all the beings form the inner body of god; all the innermost bodies are subsumed in god's innermost body. In short, god's body is this world.
"People debate the nature of god. Some say he has name and form, some deny it. But, Rama, the simple truth is this: god takes bodily form to protect this world in times of crisis. Because you are an example of that compassion, we call you pujyan ."
"Yes, but who is that giant warrior bearing down on us?"
"Right, now look at the rest of the first line. Ati talam refers to the earth, because one walks on it. This is an example of a 'derived noun.' The other class of nouns is derived from conventional usage. Then each of these two categories can be either 'general name' or 'special name.' Hence, there are four classes of nouns. For instance, we use the word pankam to mean 'mud' (ceru ). Other things that come from mud, like the word pankayam for 'lotus,' are derived nouns—even though many would consider 'lotus' a noun by convention. Still, few people use the word pankayam and use instead centamarai , which is a 'special-derived noun.' Similarly, mukkannan means 'three-eyed' and is a derived noun when we use it to mean 'coconut'; but when we use it to mean Siva, it is a 'special-derived-noun.' This phrase ati talam is also a 'special-derived-noun' because it was coined by a single person but for a special reason. And that person was Vamana, the dwarf-avatar of Visnu."
"Vibhisana, I appreciate your learned explanations, but first tell me, Who is this gigantic warrior almost upon us?"
"That's what I am telling you, Rama, by explaining this phrase ati talam . Long ago a raja and his son Mahabali built the magnificent city of Asurapati, from where the demons ruled the three worlds. Soon the gods and sages petitioned Brahma for relief from the demons' violence; Brahma sent them to Narayana, who assured them that he would end their troubles once and for all.
"'First,' he said, 'we must churn the milk ocean to acquire ambrosia. Bring that huge Mandara mountain, the long snake named Vasuki, the sixteen-phased moon Candra, and that other snake, Karkottan. But for this you gods need the help of the asuras, especially their king, Mahabali.'
"With the demons' help, the gods set up Mount Mandara as the churning stick, using the moon as a latch and a horse as a pin to fasten the stick to the tortoise as the resting place. Vasuki was wrapped around the stick, and, with the gods holding his tail and the demons his head, they began to churn. They churned and churned . . ."
For two hours Vibhisana speaks to Rama, and while he speaks, he raises his right hand two or three times to make a point. No other movement is visible on the screen. In the epic action, however, Kumbhakarna and his huge armies, the earth quaking beneath them, rapidly advance on Rama. Any reader may share Rama's growing anxiety about "that giant warrior bearing down upon us," as Vibhisana expatiates on the epithet "noble one," tells the story of Mahabali, explains the classifications of nouns, all the time
ignoring Rama's pleas, and finally finishes with a long account of the Markandeya story. By exaggerating and playing on the difference in pace between the rambling commentary and the imminent battle of the text, and not, as one might expect, hiding this discrepancy to maintain the illusion of narrative reality, the puppeteers establish the primacy of speech over action, of their interpretation over Kampan's text. And even their exegesis is cast in dialogue, spoken by one epic character to another.
We might note also that this particular scene has been staged, in a pattern repeated throughout the puppet performance, as a conversation: a warrior appears on the battlefield; Rama (or Laksmana) asks who he is, and Vibhisana then describes his birth, weapons, and boons. Vibhisana speaks similar words in Kampan, but there his words occupy a mere thirteen verses—about 3 percent of the episode—whereas the puppeteers stretch them to cover two hours, or one-third of the night's performance. The folk tradition also entirely omits the string of verses in which Kampan describes Kumbhakarna's appearance, his chariot, his armor, and his armies (or else slips these verses into Vibhisana's speech). The same principle of omitting descriptive verses in favor of conversation has determined the folk tradition's adaptation of every episode from Kampan's text. Nowhere is there description of landscape or person, except as addressed to a listener.
The tropism toward dialogue is clearest in the consistent alteration of reported speech in Kampan to direct speech in performance. This alteration at times requires a new line, or even two, but the most common technique is very simple: the final word of a Kampan verse is changed from "he said" (enrar ) to "I say" (enkiren ) or to an expletive, a vocative, or an imperative. An example of the last case is the famous first verse of the Surpanakha episode, which likens the beauty of the Godavari river to poetry. When the puppeteers chant this verse, they make one minor change: the finite verb "saw" (kantar ) becomes "look, brother" (tampi kanay ), so that the entire verse is addressed by Rama to Laksmana. Thus, instead of "The warriors saw the Godavari," we hear:
Look, Laksmana, here is the Godavari,
lying as a necklace on the world
nourishing the rich soil
rushing over waterfalls
flowing through the five regions
in clear, cool streams
like a good poet's verse.
The shift to dialogue also allows the puppeteers to express emotions that remain mute in Kampan. Voicing hidden or forhidden feelings is a characteristic of folk tradition everywhere, and the Rama literature is no exception—as when Sita draws a picture of Ravana, which then assumes physical
form beneath her bed; or when, as a ferocious goddess, she kills him; or when Laksmana marries Surpanakha. Perhaps the epic's pretense of virtue prompted the Telugu proverb: "The Ramayana is about illicit sex, the Mahabharata about lies." In the Kerala puppet play, these suspect feelings are often kept private yet given greater immediacy when a character addresses himself, replacing the last phrase of Kampan's verse ("he thought," "she feared") with "O, Heart!" (manace ). Rama or Vibhisana, then, is not simply described as thinking the words to himself; he says them to himself. Inner thoughts, too, have a listener in the puppet play.
Misgivings about war, which are faint, almost whispered, in Kampan, are loudly and continually voiced in the puppet play. This difference may be illustrated by comparing Kampan's treatment with the puppeteers' treatment of the same scene. When Rama sees Laksmana and the monkeys lying dead, felled by Indrajit's snake-weapon (naga-astra ), he falls down in grief over his brother's body, and cries out:
"No more war!
Strong-shouldered Rama looked at
and no more fame!
his bow, at the knots of the
No victory bow!
no wife! no kingdom!
Looked at the still, dark night,
Even Siva who gave me life,
at the gods in heaven
I renounce them all,
If you, Laksmana,
"I'll rip up this earth!"
do not live."
Then, biting his coral lips, he
pondered what wise men said.
"We left our father
He rubbed Laksmana's feet
and mother and we left Ayodhya
with his soft hands;
But like the Vedas,
Opened Laksmana's lotus-
we have never been apart;
eyes and peered inside.
Now you've left me, Laksmana,
His heart beat quickly as
and this earth is not my home;
he looked at the sky and
Let my soul leave me,
lifted him to his chest.
if Yama is ready to take it."
Laying him on the earth,
he wondered, "Is that
devious Indrajit near?"13
In both versions Rama is bitterly angry at his brother's (apparent) death, but they differ in their expression of that anger. In the first of Kampan's verses, Rama screams in frustration but then recedes into defeated silence; in the first folk verse, by contrast, he explicitly condemns war and its instruments. The power of this folk verse grows with the repetition of the pained cry vente ("No morel"). A repetition (kantar , "he saw") also organizes the Kampan verse: Rama's pain is suggested by his looking, first at his useless
bow, then at the merciless gods—by what he sees more than what he says. Rama remains similarly mute in the second Kampan verse, his feelings kept within his eyes, heart, and mind. In the second folk verse, however, he again speaks without reserve. Verbal denunciation rings through the folk verses, whereas revenge is visually projected in the Kampan verses.
The puppet play also voices furtive emotions through dialogue between characters. More misgivings about war, and about Rama himself, are expressed by Rama's general, the good Jambuvan. When Ravana sends in his reserve army, Jambuvan flees the field and explains to Angada:
"What can our seventy divisions do against their thousand? We'd only make a meal for them! I'm not ready to die yet."
"Jambuvan, don't say that! Once, at my father's death, you spoke to me with brave words and now you talk of retreat!"
"You're young, Angada, and cannot understand what these demons can do in battle. Ravana has sent them, and this time Rama will not defeat him."
"But, there's Laksmana, and Hanuman . . . surely . . ."
"Don't be naive. Do you think we are anything more than bodyguards to them? Did anyone protect [my son] Vasantan when Kumbhakarna mauled him? And no one will stop the pain when you die, either. Better to escape into the forest, drink pure water, and eat fresh fruits. Let Rama win or lose— what's it to us anyway? Why should we die for them?"
In a later episode, "The Revival of Vasantan" (considered a late interpolation in Karopan), the horror of death again prompts Jambuvan to accuse Rama of disloyalty. After Ravana's death and Vibhisana's coronation as raja of Lanka, Rama, Sita, Laksmana, and the monkeys prepare to return to Ayodhya in Ravana's old chariot. At this happy moment, Jambuvan speaks angrily, refusing to enter the chariot because, he says, "I am old and have seen many amazing events, but never have I seen someone take back so quickly what they have given." His charge, that Rama is reclaiming the chariot that only minutes ago he gave to Vibhisana when crowning him, seems somewhat contrived, but we soon learn its underlying motivation: Jambuvan is angry at Rama for his indifference to Jambuvan's son, Vasantan, killed while fighting for Rama's cause. Rama may well celebrate—his wife and brother are still alive—but what of the thousands of monkeys who died in their defense? Are they to be forgotten in the triumphant return to Ayodhya?
Jambuvan's refusal to ignore the reality of death in the celebration of victory characterizes the emotions given new voice in the puppet play. The folk tradition will not accept platitudes or categories uncritically; in the key Surpanakha and Valin episodes, it shows that the Rama-avatar is flawed and that the claims of the bhakti epic are easily deflated. My favorite example of this check on the epic's excessive posturing is the puppeteers' treatment of
Hanuman's mission to bring back medicinal herbs needed to revive Laksmana and the monkeys. Jambuvan speaks excitedly:
"Listen, Hanuman, we have only three-quarters of an hour to revive Laksmana and the others. Then the sun rises and Indrajit will behead them all!"
"Before that, you must travel seventy-three thousand yoganas to the Medicine Mountain, find a special healing herb, and return."
"Are you joking?"
"Seventy-three thousand yoganas in three-quarters of an hour? And return? It's . . . impossible."
"But, Hanuman, if you don't . . ."
"That far, that quickly, to locate a rare herb for an incurable disease? Ridiculous, that's all."
In the puppet play, even Hanuman, the ideal Rama devotee, cannot resist poking fun at epic hyperbole.
The puppet play's countervailing comic voice, however, belongs more often to characters either insignificant or absent in Kampan's text. The most important of these figures arc the Standard Bearer, nowhere found in Kampan but always stationed next to Ravana on the cloth screen, and Ravana's messengers, present but nondescript in Kampan. The Standard Bearer stirs from his silent pose when he and Indrajit, Ravana's son, inspect the bodies of Laksmana and the monkeys felled by Indrajit's snake-weapon. His comic dialogue with the great demon warrior (considered more dangerous than Ravana) serves to undermine Indrajit's pretensions to power. They meet unexpectedly on the battlefield and the Standard Bearer speaks first, parodying the sounds of war:
"Bing-bang, bing-bang! Who are you?"
"Me? I just shot the snake-weapon, the whole point of this night's performance."
"Oh, and you came here in this chariot, I suppose."
"Right. How'd you come?"
"I'm the Standard Bearer; I just grabbed onto the chariot and came along for the ride."
"What do you want?"
"Problem is your snake-weapon did not kill them; it only knocked them out. I'll finish them off by stabbing them with the tip of my staff. Anyway, let's walk along this battlefield and inspect each body. If my staff doesn't finish them off, you can always shoot another snake-weapon."
"Who's this, lying here?"
"It's Nalan, the one who built the causeway to Lanka by carrying all those stones on his head."
"A contractor, huh?"
"Yes. Give the 'boss' a good stab."
"And this one?"
"That's Blue-Man (nilan )."
"Oh, I need some of that."
"You see, my wife hasn't washed her sari for a week and . . ."
"Not blue-soap (nilam ), stupid! Blue-Man. Besides, do you wash your wife's saris?"
"If you saw them, you'd understand why no one else would touch them. Anyway, who is low enough to be my washerman?"
Apparently a servant's staff is more potent than the epic's most fearsome weapon. The same point is made later when the epic battle grinds to a standstill because the Standard Bearer refuses to hold the standard without receiving his pay. This servant-figure, anonymous but indispensable, appears fully assimilated into the epic when he requests and receives moksa (religious liberation) from Rama. But this supreme act of bhakti is compromised when he flinches in fear of death. As with Jambuvan's anger and grief at the moment of the return to Ayodhya, the puppet play speaks of mortality precisely when the epic wishes to celebrate victory or religious devotion.
At other times, the Standard Bearer and messengers laugh when epic characters mourn. If the Rama story in the puppet play is pervaded by a single emotion, it is grief, especially over loss in death. But the most powerful scenes of grief—-when Rama cries (twice) for his dead brother and allies, and when Ravana cries over his dead son, Indrajit—are hedged around with a comic element supplied by these folk figures. Rama's mourning is immediately preceded by the slapstick, puns, and dirty laundry of the scene translated above in which the Standard Bearer and Indrajit inspect bodies on the field; the same scene is repeated later (before Rama mourns those felled by the Brahma-astra) with the same jokes, to the same effect. An even more obvious undermining of grief occurs just before Ravana learns of Indrajit's death. Returning from the battlefield with this information, the messengers sing a mock dirge to Indrajit. Then, when Ravana asks them for the "news" (of his son), they trifle with him, informing him of the latest gossip in the vegetable market. Finally, anticipating Ravana's tears just before they tell him about Indrajit, the messengers comment sarcastically, "It's monsoon time again!"
This dialogue between epic characters, which we have been listening to in both verse and commentary, comprises most of the long hours of performance. The introductory dialogue between Brahmins is brief by comparison,
while the third dialogue, that between Indra and the gods, is intermittent. Unlike the epic characters, but like the Brahmin puppets, Indra and the gods do not participate in the epic action; they comment on it as omniscient narrators. Indra and the gods occasionally appear in Kampan's text, too, commenting on and influencing the epic action, especially when Indra sends Rama his chariot and charioteer in the final battle against Ravana. But in the shadow puppet play, Indra appears frequently and always with another puppet, who represents the other gods collectively; and, whereas in Kampan Indra speaks directly to the epic characters, in the puppet play he speaks only to his companion puppet.
A good example of this third-level dialogue occurs when Ravana enters his palace humiliated, having lost the first battle with Rama:
"Tell us, Indra, how did Ravana feel when he entered the palace?"
"He was disgraced. Having lost his chariot, he walked on foot, dragging his long arms along the ground, just as the sun set in the west."
"He entered just as the sun set—is there any special meaning to that?"
"I'll come back to that. First it is important to say that this twenty-armed Ravana was defeated by the two arms of Rama."
"Sri Rama's right and left arms, right?"
[At this point, a man who I had thought was fast asleep in the corner of the drama house jumped up and spoke, displacing one of the puppeteers:]
"What was your question? Something about the setting sun?"
"Nothing really, Indra. Some say that the setting sun symbolized Ravana's life, its decline, I mean."
"No! No! Nothing of the sort. Demons fight at night because you can't defeat them in the darkness. The point of this line is that the first battle took place during the day and thus Rama was able to defeat Ravana. To say that Ravana's entering the palace at sunset symbolizes the end of his life is sheer nonsense! It simply indicates the fact the battle took place in daylight and nothing more. Now if you want to talk about Rama's two hands . . . [that's another story]."
Pinned high on the cloth screen, above the epic characters, Indra and the gods are spectators as well as narrators. From the very first episode in the puppeteers' text, when they petition Visnu to defeat their enemies, the gods have kept a close watch on Rama. Visnu's eagle, Garuda, for instance, spies Rama grieving on the battlefield and flies down from Mount Meru to tear free the knots of the snake-weapon that bind his brother. Rama and Ravana, for their part, are not unaware of their distant audience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last scene of the great battle: Ravana tells Rama to spare no effort in offering the gods a good spectacle, and, before he kills the demon raja, Rama addresses the gods: "Gods, I, Rama, now kill Ravana."
To summarize the discussion thus far: The puppet play is performed as
dialogue on three levels, each of which has its listeners, an audience internal to the performance. The interaction among the Kerala puppeteers, however, is more complex than these puppet voices. When the puppets converse as Brahmins at the opening of the performance, or as epic characters in verse or commentary during the narrative, or as gods above the action, only their shadows are projected on the public side of the cloth screen. Inside the drama house, however, another kind of exchange, a private "conversation," is carried on among the puppeteers themselves.
The puppeteers always perform in a pair, a lead man and a respondent, and in shifts: two men will begin and, after a few hours, one or both of the performers will be relieved by others who have been resting. The long hours of narration and interpretation, then, amount to a tête-à-tête between the lead puppeteer and his respondent. At times, when a puppeteer launches into a diatribe on his favorite point of Hindu philosophy, the performance may resemble a monologue. Nonetheless, however far a speech may wander, it eventually reverts to dialogue by concluding with a question to the respondent, or when the respondent himself puts a question to the first puppeteer. The dialogic nature of the commentary is also continuously, if a little monotonously, maintained by the partner, who responds with a drone-sound ("ahhhhh") whenever the lead man pauses for thought or breath. In addition, every speech, again regardless of its length, begins and ends with standardized vocatives. Thus Rama is always addressed as "Rama-god," Laksmana as "Young-god," Vibhisana as "Raja of Lanka," and so on. While these labels are addressed to the epic character, they also function as signposts to a puppeteer lost within a detailed commentary. When one man plunges into the story of the "Churning of the Ocean" and resurfaces to the epic story forty minutes later with the question, "So what do you think?" his partner is likely to have forgotten who is speaking to whom and is rescued only when the man mercifully adds, "Raja of Lanka?"
Dialogue between puppeteers during the commentary is more obvious when, as is usual, they trade speeches of two or three minutes' length. And when they speak in a rapid-fire exchange, improvising freely, anyone sitting behind the cloth screen realizes that the puppets on the screen are less interesting than the puppeteers. On one occasion, during the confrontation between Indrajit and Hanuman on the battlefield ("Hey, runt, where's your weapons? Come and fight like a man!"), the puppeteer speaking for Indrajit challenged his partner, jabbing his finger and shouting at him; the puppeteer playing Hanuman merely raised his eyebrows and responded with cool disdain. In their long and complicated telling of the Rama story, a puppeteer will react to his partner with every kind of emotion—frustration with his wordiness, respect for his wit and knowledge, gentle humor at his sleepiness.
Familiar tactics of talk are employed by puppeteers to control the flow of conversation among themselves. "Let that be," one man interrupts the
other's account of Ravana's palace, "and explain how you got here, Vibhisana." Certain senior puppeteers are notorious for their long-winded discourses and apparent disregard for time; others in the drama house, fearful that the sun will in fact rise before Hanuman returns with the medicinal herbs, wrestle with them to hasten the pace of the commentary. As the senior puppeteer glides effortlessly through Jambuvan's account of the origin of the worlds, for example, he is cut short: "I see, Jambuvan, so that's how you were born; but what can we do about Laksmana's death?" No one likes to be cut off, and some puppeteers will fight to maintain control of the commentary, raising their voice or speaking faster. The most effective way to silence your opponent and regain control, however, is suddenly to recite a line from the verse you are explaining (which everyone else has in all likelihood forgotten). By an instinct born of long training, your partner will almost certainly drop whatever he was trying to say and chant the rest of the line, leaving you free to continue on.
Inside the drama house, cut off from their conventional audience, the puppeteers perform for themselves. The learned quotations, the rapid replies, the skill at parody, the displays of logic—all are calculated to win respect from the little band of fellow puppeteers and drummers, and the occasional stray connoisseur. Even when only two puppeteers are awake, they take pride in setting right the meaning of the setting sun, explaining how Ravana got his name, or laughing at the foolish messengers. Likewise, there is a measure of shared shame when someone fails, forgets the next verse, or begins with the wrong line. That is why some puppeteers, even those with ten years' experience, take a notebook of verses, and sometimes quotations, into the drama house; one may refer to this book, but not read directly from it. Only once, in three research trips, did I see a puppeteer completely at a loss. The young man suddenly went blank in mid-verse: "I don't know the verses in this part," he murmured to his partner and then hung his head, while the other man glared at him but carried on.
The quality of a performance matters on the other side of the cloth screen, too. If not the reception by the half-awake "audience" on the ground, the opinions of the patrons and temple officials determine which puppeteer group will be hired next year; and the loss of patronage at even one temple delivers a hard financial blow. I have no precise data on how these influential men form judgments about performances, but from my conversations with them it is clear that they hold definite views. Although patrons and officials rarely stay through the night, they do listen to the long introduction by the Brahmin puppets and hear informal reports from many people during the course of the festival. Almost as important to the puppeteers are the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual patrons who give a single rupee in the hope of securing blessings from Bhagavati. They will not be present in the middle of the night when the puppeteers sing their names to the goddess,
but the general reputation of the puppeteers will determine how many villagers offer them money.
Another external audience for the puppet play is the goddess Bhagavati, as the origin legend of the tradition explains:
The goddess who guarded the gates to Brahma's treasury grew proud and was cursed to serve as guard to Ravana's treasury in the city of Lanka. For thousands of years she protected Ravana's wealth, until Rama and his monkey armies attacked the city. When Hanuman attempted to enter and she blocked his path, the monkey slapped her with his tail and sent her to Siva's heaven. Once there, she complained: "For years and years I have suffered under Ravana and now, just as he is to be killed by Rama, I am here and cannot see this special event." Siva then gave her a boon: "You shall be born on earth as Bhagavati and I will be born as the poet Kampan. I will write the story of Ravana's death and you may watch it every year in your temple."
In the origin legend, as in the patronage system, Bhagavati is the public audience. The puppeteers play to please her.
However, even Bhagavati hears words and see shadows on one side of the cloth screen only. Neither she nor the patrons nor the sleeping listeners play any role in the performance; they overhear it. Such extreme distance between performers and external audience distinguishes the shadow puppet play from most other kinds of oral folk performance. Tales, proverbs, folk theater and so on are partially, sometimes largely, shaped by audience reaction; this is why donations to performers in most Indian folk traditions are offered during the performance and not beforehand, as in the Kerala puppet play. Although every performance involves a degree of separation between performer and audience, the distance shrinks when a teller draws on the local setting for details of his story. And the gap all but disappears when listeners play a role in the performance, as a spirit-possessed dancer in a ritual or as a respondent in a joke.
Interaction between performers and audience gives a performance vitality and popularity, but communication is difficult through a screen of shadows. In Kerala, the distance inevitable in shadow puppetry is increased, rather than decreased, because the puppeteers are completely enclosed inside a drama house and use a medieval Tamil text, making little concession to spectator taste for music or movement. Observers and scholars, as noted earlier, have faulted the Kerala tradition for its apparent unresponsiveness, which has tended to alienate its audience. But the absent audience may have contributed to the complexity of the puppeteers' art. Converting Kampan's text to dialogue, the puppeteers created internal audiences: every word spoken by a Brahmin, an epic character, or a god is addressed to another puppet; every speaker is paired with a listener with whom he interacts. And the most important audience for the Kerala puppet plays are the puppeteers themselves. In
commentary, in chanting verses, and in manipulating puppets, these men constantly interact with each other, responding to jokes, jibes, and personalities. This is true of actors on any stage, but the Kerala puppeteers' full performance is visible only to the audience inside the drama house.