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Eight Creating Conversations: The Rama Story as Puppet Play in Kerala

This essay is based on fieldwork carried out in Kerala in 1984, 1985, and 1989 with support from the Fulbright Program (CIES), and on research supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

1. The pioneering study of audiences in folk performances is Roger Abrahams, "The Complex Relations of Simple Forms," in Folklore Genres , ed. Dan Ben-Amos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), 193-214. On audiences in puppet performances, see Frank Proschan, "Cocreation of the Comic in Puppetry," in Humor and Comedy in Puppetry: A Celebration of Popular Culture , ed. Dina Sherzer and Joel Sherzer (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1987), 30-46. [BACK]

2. For a more complete description of the Kerala shadow puppet tradition, see Friedrich Seltmann, Schattenspiel in Kerala (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1986); and Stuart H. Blackburn, "Hanging in the Balance: Rama in the Shadow Puppet Theater of Kerala," in Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions , ed. Arjun Appadurai et al. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). [BACK]

3. These episodes and motifs—for example, the killing of Sambukumaran, the son of Surpanakha, or Rama's admission of guilt in the Valin episode—are, however, known in the wider Ramayana literature. [BACK]

4. On Kampan's language, see George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz, The Forest Book of the Ramayana of Kampan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 7-19. [BACK]

5. Stan Harding, "Ramayana Shadow-Play in India," Asia (April 1935): 234. J. H. Cousins, "Dance-Drama and the Shadow Play," in The Arts and Crafts of Kerala , ed. Stella Kramrisch, J. H. Cousins, and R. Vasudevan Poduval (1948; repr., Cochin: Paico Publishing House, 1970), 212. [BACK]

6. For a discussion of the interaction between puppeteers and their patrons and audiences in Java, see Ward Keeler, Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). Shadow puppet performances in India (except Kerala) use a temporary enclosed stage. [BACK]

7. Philip Lutgendorf makes a similar point concerning interpretation of Tulsidas's Rama story: "The View from the Ghats: Traditional Exegesis of a Hindu Epic," Journal of Asian Studies 48, no. 2 (May 1989): 272-88. [BACK]

8. The Kampan verse is VI. 15.111 ( tolotu tol ) in the death of Kumbhakarna episode (Vai. Mu. Kopalakirusnamacariyar edition, Madras, 1976); all further reference to Kampan verses are to this edition. One Kampan verse recited during this excerpt has been eliminated from the translation because the commentary simply restates it. [BACK]

9. VI.15.114 ( ariyan aniya ). The folk alteration of this Kampan verse exemplifies the general principle of converting indirect to direct speech: its first line revised, the entire verse is now spoken by Vibhisana. [BACK]

10. III.5.1 ( puviyinukku ) in the Surpanakha episode of the Forest Book. [BACK]

11. See the essays by Ramanujan and Narayana Rao in this volume. For Surpanakha's marriage to Laksmana, see Komal Kothari. "Performers, Gods, and Heroes in the Oral Epics of Rajasthan," in Oral Epics in India , ed. Stuart H. Blackburn et al. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 116. [BACK]

12. " Ramayanam ranku, Bharatam bonku "; collected from Sampath Kumar, Hyderabad, July 1988. [BACK]

14. A Kampan verse, VI.30.43 ( anuman , of the Mulapala Vatai episode in the War Book), not sung by the puppeteers in this scene, contains a proverb found in some form in all South Indian languages: "If Rama rules or Ravana rules, what's the difference?" [BACK]

15. The other major figure given a voice in the puppet plays is the oracle-priest of Bhagavati temples. [BACK]

16. These learned quotations ( piramanam ) in Tamil, and occasionally in Sanskrit, are aphorisms cited by the puppeteers to illustrate a point. [BACK]

17. The singing of these blessings is called a natakam (here, "dance"). Ravana summons celestial dancing women, and the puppets representing these dancers are placed on the screen while the puppeteers (as singers in Ravana's court) sing devotional songs. [BACK]

18. The legend is not known to all puppeteers, nor does it appear to have a textual source, although it is invariably mentioned in articles on the Kerala tradition. I collected this version from a puppeteer in a village near Palghat in 1985. [BACK]

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