Inside The Drama-House

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Stuart Blackburn takes the reader inside a little-known form of shadow puppetry in this captivating work about performing the Tamil version of the Ramayana epic. Blackburn describes the skill and physical stamina of the puppeteers in Kerala state in South
India as they perform all night for as many as ten weeks during the festival season. The fact that these performances often take place without an audience forms the starting point for Blackburn's discussion—one which explores not only this important epic tale and its performance, but also the broader theoretical issues of text, interpretation, and audience.

Blackburn demonstrates how the performers adapt the narrative and add their own commentary to re-create the story from a folk perspective. At a time when the Rama story is used to mobilize political movements in
India, the puppeteers' elaborate recitation and commentary presents this controversial tale from another ethical perspective, one that advocates moral reciprocity and balance.

While the study of folk narrative has until now focused on tales, tellers, and tellings, this work explores the importance of audience—absent or otherwise. Blackburn's elegant translations of the most dramatic and pivotal sequences of the story enhance our appreciation of this unique example of performance art.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520202061
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1996
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Stuart Blackburn is Lecturer in Tamil and South
Indian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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Read an Excerpt

Inside the Drama-House

Rama Stories and Shadow Puppets in South India
By Stuart Blackburn

University of California Press

Copyright © 1996 Stuart Blackburn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520202061

Chapter 1
An Absent Audience

This book describes the performance of a medieval text as shadow puppet play in a small corner of south India. The text is the Kamparamayanam , a Rama story composed in Tamil by Kampan, at the Chola court of Tanjore, probably in the twelfth century.1 The puppet play is today performed in the Palghat region of Kerala primarily by Tamil-speaking puppeteers in temple festivals dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati. The recontextualization of this epic text, eight centuries after its composition, into a new medium, in a rural, ritual setting and a new linguistic context, is the central theme of this book. Although I will emphasize the Kerala puppeteers' particular telling of the Rama story, especially through translations of their performances, I will also take up the wider issues of audience interaction, the interpretive role of oral commentary, and the intertextuality of Rama stories. In this initial chapter, I begin with audiences and then provide an introduction to Kampan's Rama story in Kerala. Imagine that (a medieval) Shakespeare was thought to exist only in libraries, until a performance tradition with local commentary was discovered somewhere inWales; then add that the players perform for an absent audience; and you have the Kerala shadow puppet play.

Even if it had no relation to the medieval Tamil epic, the Kerala tradition is important because Indian shadow puppetry is little known both inside and outside the subcontinent. Like Buddhism, the art was thought to have vanished from its Indian birthplace as it migrated and flourished elsewhere in Asia. But Indologists debated whether references in old Sanskrit texts proved the existence of an ancient shadowpuppet play; if such a tradition had existed, where was it now?2 The answer came in 1935 when a German scholar saw a performance in Karnataka and, in an uncanny coincidence, an American journalist stumbled on another in Kerala. The vanishing act had been an illusion, and we know that Indian shadow puppetry is performed in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, and until recently, in Maharashtra and Orissa. The Kerala tradition was known to the outside world only by a handful of essays until 1986, when Dr. F. Seltmann published his excellent monograph.

Known as tol pava kuttu ("leather puppet play"), the shadow puppet theater in Kerala is never performed for one night, or for anything less than eight nights in succession. Night after night, for ten or twenty or even sixty consecutive nights, two or three men sit inside a small building and manipulate painted, perforated leather puppets, throwing shadows on a white cloth screen, chanting Kampan's verses and explicating them in a rambling commentary that is generated both by convention and the predilections of individual puppeteers. How these various pieces of the tradition—shadow puppetry, epic story, commentary, and festival—come together in this performance of a Tamil text in Kerala took me many years to understand, for the Rama story is multiple, the Kampan text vast, and the series of overnight performances monumental. Any single book intending to cover all these topics fully would fail (a translation of the performance sequence itself would exceed a thousand printed pages). The puppeteers claim it takes ten years to acquire the knowledge necessary for a skillful performance, warning that attempting to explain a verse "without first studying the old books is like a man trying to bind a wild elephant with a wet lotus stalk."3 A few lotus stalks have surely slithered through my hands in the past decade, but I believe that enough of the elephant has been bound for me to write this book about a text and its new audiences.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for my first full shadow-puppet-play performance, in January 1984, and had someone told me that I would spend the next ten years attempting to understand it, I might not have made the trip. As I hurried along narrow, dark roads toward the village of Suhavaram in central Kerala in a taxi with five puppeteers who were to perform there that night, my thoughts ran on a single track—"How much sleep will I lose? When will I return in the morning? I said I'd be back around midnight, but they've now told me that it will be daybreak before we even leave this place I've yet to see." The puppeteers were asleep in the rumbling auto—Krishnan Kutty, the senior puppeteer; his two sons, aged sixteen and eighteen; and two assistants, Sankara Nayar and Narayana Nayar.

I met Krishnan Kutty in 1978 when I wandered into a large auditorium in Bangalore, the computer capital of modern India, during a national festival of shadow puppetry; I was supposed to be attending a Fulbright Conference for grantees, but shadow puppets seemed more interesting. Stumbling onto his spirited performance in that artificial setting, I was intrigued, for it seemed that the story had something to do with Rama—in Tamil, in Kerala. Tamil I knew, from my first trip to India in 1970-72 as a Peace Corps volunteer (when I had to learn the language well enough to speak it faster than my friends spoke English), from later research trips, and from graduate school at Berkeley. Kerala, too, was familiar to me since I had done field work on its border with Tamil Nadu for an earlier book, but the Malayali temple festivals, food, and language were unfamiliar. Of the Rama story, I knew only the barest outline—his exile, the loss of his wife, her recapture from Ravana in Lanka, and something about Hanuman, the monkey who aided Rama. More than this, all those other names and episodes, which everyone else seemed to know, blurred into a jumble of sounds and kinship relations. But shadow puppetry in Kerala—wasn't that the premier performing art of Java and Bali? This intrigued me, so I scribbled down a few notes and returned to the Fulbright meeting, full of questions that I failed to pursue until, six years later, my wife and I visited her son, who was training as a Kathakali dancer in central Kerala. Michael casually mentioned that some puppeteers lived nearby; the next day I found Krishnan Kutty's home, and he immediately invited me to the performance that very night at Suhavaram.

The taxi, puppeteers still snoring, reached Suhavaram about ten o'clock. Suhavaram is a small village of Tiyar agricultural workers and a few Nambutiri Brahmins in the far western reaches of the puppet-play region, on the banks of the Ponani River, not far from the town of the same name, where the river flows into the Arabian Sea. When we arrived, it was pitch-dark and chilly, but the large area in front of the temple was buzzing with activity, hissing with bright kerosene lamps, and booming with loud temple music. Climbing out of the taxi, I was drawn to a performance of Ottan Tullal, in which a dancer recites mythic stories in Malayalam, but my companions showed no interest: "Sure, have a look," they said begrudgingly and then lifted the huge woven basket containing their puppets from the trunk of the taxi and lugged it toward the drama-house (kuttu matam ).

Standing off to the side, at an angle to the Bhagavati temple, the small drama-house did not catch my attention at first; from a distance, anyone might mistake its red-tiled roof, wooden rafters, and whitewashed walls for a modest home or shop. Only the long, open front, where the white cloth screen hangs down at night, marks this oblong structure as a stage for the shadow puppet play. Raised on a platform and reached by a few steps, its three walls stand six feet high at the perimeter and fifteen feet high in the center where the rafters peak. Platform, steps, walls, and floor are all made of hard-baked mud covered with lime paste and sometimes decorated with red vertical stripes, like a Visnu temple. In front, the screen hangs down to the floor, which extends a few feet beyond the screen. Puppets appear on the screen only during the annual festival, which is held sometime between January. and May, but the drama-house is seldom idle even when no performances are held—in the months of summer rain, in the autumn, and in the brief winter. With the cloth screen rolled up, a bamboo wicker screen wedged in front to keep out birds, and the puppet-play paraphernalia stored in the dry. rafters above, the drama-house becomes a place where men gather to smoke and talk and sleep. A few drama-houses serve as public libraries during the off-season.

That night at Suhavaram, I watched from outside the drama-house as Krishnan Kutty and his assistants stepped up inside the small building. One of his sons sat off to the side of the stage with a tiny kerosene lamp and a battered school notebook while a steady trickle of people approached, gave their names, mentioned problems they wished to have alleviated, and pledged donations (invariably one rupee each), which information the young many duly entered in neat writing in the notebook. Later, sometime during the performance, the puppeteers would interrupt their narration to read every one of those names and sing a verse for each one-rupee patron, invoking the blessings of goddess Bhagavati and Sri Rama on their behalf.4 That night the book held over one hundred names (one person may enter many names), and several hundred is not unusual; once, on the night of Indrajit's death, which signals the fall of Lanka, I saw a book with more than three thousand names.

About 11:00 P.M. , when the Ottan Tullal performance was completed and most of the crowd had gone home to sleep, preparations for the puppet play began in earnest. Krishnan Kutty, the pulavar (poet-scholar), was summoned to the temple, where the oracle-priest (velic- cappatu ) offered him a new white cloth and two brass vessels of raw rice; wearing only his clean white vesti 5 and a towel across his shoulders, the senior puppeteer walked three times around these gifts, picked them up, and returned to the drama-house, where the cloth (ayya putavai ) was fastened to the roof with rope, rolled down, and secured to the floor of the drama-house with heavy stones while the vessels were set in place for the Ganesa puja to follow. Inside the now fully enclosed and windowless drama-house, I felt claustrophobic (my thoughts raced back to the baseball dugouts and underground forts I had inhabited as a boy). Awkwardly stepping over and around the five puppeteers, I found a corner from which to watch them prepare the "stage." They lowered a long plank of jackwood from the rafters, positioned it to hang by ropes very close to the cloth screen, and placed on it twenty-one half-shells of coconut; then they filled the shells with coconut oil and slipped in wicks, which they had just made by rolling bits of cotton thread into thin strips. At first the coconut-shell lamps remained unlit while experienced hands swiftly selected the Ganesa puppet and a pair of Brahmin puppets from among dozens lying tangled in the enormous woven basket. Narayana Nayar fastened these puppets onto the screen with thick thorns and chuckled while I fumbled around trying to hang my microphone from the rafters so that it dangled directly in front of the wooden bench on which the puppeteers would sit during performance. When the puppets that would appear later that opening night—Rama, Laksmana, Sita, Surpanakha, a few nameless demons—were extracted from the basket and stacked to one side, everything was ready. A tray of glasses was poked through a corner of the cloth screen and passed around; slowly we sipped the milky, sweet tea, until, without warning, the puppeteers lay down on mats and fell asleep. I looked around the dark drama-house, realizing that, over the course of the weeks that the puppeteers perform, this would be their nighttime home and, if their village is farther than an hour's bus ride from the festival, their home during the day as well. This small space, soon to be alive with lights and puppets and epic events, is the world of the Kerala puppeteers.

From inside, the puppeteers look out on an open area and, off to one side, the Bhagavati temple, whose separation from the drama-house is more than physical. Although the puppet play is performed as a ritual for the goddess in her festival, it is kept at a distance, like the secular dramas performed on a wooden stage erected in another corner of the openspace; events of higher ritual status, however, such as Kathakali, Ottan Tullal, or Cakkyar Kuthu, are performed inside the temple compound. The puppet play is also slighted in billing, for it begins only after the other performances (modern dramas as well as classical arts) have been completed, often at midnight or one o'clock in the morning. Watching from their perch on the stage, the puppeteers comment on these rival performances with jealous contempt—"They pander to the public, they require no intellect"—but no one inside the drama-house would complain if the puppet performance also commanded thousands of spectators. Kathakali, whose elaborately costumed dancers are fast becoming an internationally recognized icon of Indian culture, receives most of the puppeteers' scorn: "Stamp your feet—bham! wham!—and you're off to Paris!" In truth, the numerous trips made by Kathakali troupes to culture festivals all over the world have wounded the puppeteers' pride, for only one puppet troupe has ever traveled beyond Kerala. The drama-houses, permanent yet separate, stand as a monument to the ambivalent status of the puppet play, of Kampan's courtly text in a Kerala village festival.

That first night at Suhavaram I did not feel at home in that dark, cramped space, where everyone but me was asleep. "When will the performance begin?" I wanted to know. Frustrated, and with little else to do, I double-checked my batteries and wrote more "context" notes in my black binder. Then, suddenly, everyone stirred, awakened by the cenda drums played in a procession advancing from the temple. Leading this nightly assemblage of musicians, temple-lamp bearer, officials, and patrons, the oracle-priest marched with measured steps that shook the bells on his ankles, on his belt, and on his curved sword held high above his head. His bright red skirt and ice-white hair shining in the kerosene lamps held high by servants, he became possessed by Bhagavati, but his prophetic shrieks were barely audible over the big-barrel drums booming behind him. Three times the procession wheeled in a great circle in front of the drama-house, and then the oracle-priest halted, executed a short, jerky dance, and spoke for the goddess to the small crowd gathered for this minor manifestation of divinity. Still shaking and uttering cries, he showered them with rice and shouted a blessing for tonight's sponsors and anyone who came forth with a problem.6 Peering out from under the white cloth screen, we watched him make a final offering of rice to Krishnan Kutty, who then received the heavy brass temple lamp (tukku vilakku ) and ducked back under the screen. When that lamp was hung inside the drama-house to mark the ritual transfer from temple topuppet play, the procession dispersed, leaving only the sponsors and a few hangers-on.

Inside the drama-house, Krishnan Kutty conducted a small puja for the Ganesa puppet pinned on the screen. Placing the rice, flowers, incense, and a coconut on a banana leaf on the floor, he quickly chanted a verse, lit the incense, and waved it around the static puppet while the other puppeteers prostrated themselves in front of it. Each man then touched the feet of the puppeteers senior to him, as a sign of respect, until, finally, Krishnan Kutty touched the Ganesa puppet.7 After a puppeteer unhooked the temple lamp and lit the cotton wicks in the shell-lamps, I saw the puppets clearly for the first time in their bold colors, casting filigree shadows on the screen.8 Now the performance began, as on every night, with a little uninspired drumming to which the puppeteers added a barely audible chant that gradually expanded into a series of devotional songs sung by the two Brahmin puppets flanking Ganesa on the cloth screen.9 These Brahmin puppets, the masters of ceremonies for this introduction ("Song of the Drama-House"), danced jerkily around the god and rang bells in imitation of the oracle-priest. Abruptly, one quoted a proverbial verse to the other:

"A great person should forgive
     the mistakes of little ones;
If he forgives not,
     he is no longer great."

"Right. And there are so many errors one can make in reciting these dense verses: errors in speaking, errors in meaning, errors in meter, errors in the story, and errors when reading and copying manuscripts."

"We ask that we be forgiven if we commit any of these mistakes."

"And now, Muttuppattar, let us begin our story."

"But first, there is a little delay."

"Delay? What for? Some scandal?"

"Hardly. The cause for the delay is us."


"Yes, we must thank the sponsors of tonight's performance for all the food they have given us."

"Ah, that's the puppeteer tradition—to acknowledge our patrons. As they say, 'Poets who get rice should give praise.'"

"Tonight we want to thank Kuncu Kuttan of Talaipurumpil since every year his family sponsors the first night of the puppet show."

"And again this year he sent a messenger to bring us here to Kunnumpuli Kavu. When our bus pulled up, he was there to greet us and then escort us to his home, where we ate a big breakfast and received every kind of honor. We slept on comfortable pillows, drank hot coffee and ate rice-cakes in the afternoon, and ate a huge meal this evening. Then he invited us to worship Bhagavati in the temple here. Afterwards, as we left for the drama-house, he supplied us with a large plate of betel nut and betel leaves."

"We ask that Bhagavati protect Kuncu Kuttan, his family and relations from every kind of disease and misfortune. By the power of Rama's name and Bhagavati's compassion, may his family prosper for a thousand years."

As the twenty-odd tiny flames rose and brightened, the drama-house emerged from its darkness and the performance took shape within. After an hour, the puppeteers sang the first narrative verse, followed by some commentary, then more verses and more commentary, hour after hour, while the handful of an audience fell asleep and the outside world receded into a black wall of night. Inside, however, in the now dimmer but steadier glow of the little lamps, the puppeteers continued to sing and chant in an uninterrupted stream of words until early morning. Precisely at five o'clock, just as the final devotional song was sung, the coconut shells (with the "meat" still inside) were brought to the lead puppeteer, who quickly apportioned them according to seniority—a stack of three or four for his assistants, two or three for the drummers, the rest for himself.10 Then the puppeteers stepped down from the drama-house and headed for home in the heatless air of early morning; and as we sat in the roadside tea stall waiting for a bus, I took stock of what I had witnessed. These five men, really three men and two teenagers, whom I barely knew and who appeared unremarkable in their slightly soiled vestis and rumpled shirts, had just completed an extraordinary exhibition of verbal art. Yet something was missing. Sipping the weak tea and looking around, I realized that they were alone—no one had congratulated them after they put down the puppets; no one had even greeted them. What had been invisible during the marathon insidethe drama-house was inescapable in the daylight outside: these men had performed for themselves.

Searching for an Audience

This realization was the starting point of my research on the puppet play—not the Rama story, not the puppets, not even Kampan's text, although it did intrigue me, but this curious aspect of the puppet-play performance, the absent audience, for which I was entirely unprepared. Performances had always fascinated me, even before I read what folklorists and anthropologists had to say about them. During my first stay in India (1970-72), I had delighted in the irreverent open-air dramas staged by the Tamil Rationalist movement, watched high-stakes kabadi games, observed my share of weddings and funerals, and stared at fire-walkers.11 Returning a few years later to document a Tamil tradition of ritual singing and spirit possession, I began to think and write about performance as a cultural category. That research became a book in which I proposed that oral performance be studied as a conjunction of text and event, but I completely overlooked the equally important aspect of audience.12

We all know that tales require listeners, yet audiences seldom appear in folk narrative research, which has moved through a succession of emphases, from tales to tellers to tellings. Even in the study of oral performance, with its eye trained on the exchange between performers and listeners, the audience rarely appears as more than a passive receptor, or in Jakobson's famous words, "those to whom the message is addressed."13 As if pulled by the hereditary instinct of its literary origins, the mainstream study of oral performance has moved back toward textual structure, textual composition, and other elements that constitute a new textual orthodoxy, or what might be called an "oral literary formalism." Audience was never entirely neglected, of course, and new studies, in India and elsewhere, suggest that we might yet fulfill the promise of early performance studies and recognize audiences for who they are—critics, consumers, and coperformers of the event.14

Fortified with this theoretical weaponry and zeal, I confidently took to the field in Kerala to study the shadow puppet play. Arriving that night in Suhavaram, my goals were unclear, but since the modernanthropological study of performance practically began in India, with Milton Singer's observations of events in Madras, my ambitions were high. By morning, however, before I had had time even to listen to my tapes, I was wrestling with the problem of audience in an unforeseen form: there was none. In the months and years that followed, despite my hope that the Suhavaram debut in an isolated spot on a cold night might have been an aberration, audiences refused to emerge. Unlike other, proper performances, the Kerala puppet plays have no ordinary, audience. After the sponsoring family leaves (and they rarely stay after the first half hour of a performance, when their praises are sting), the large, open space in front of the puppet stage is virtually deserted. A few stragglers with nowhere else to sleep might camp outside the drama-house, and occasionally a handful of devotees or a rare connoisseur of the art might watch for a few hours and then go home, but no one stays awake and listens throughout the night.

At first, this absent audience troubled me simply because, as I now realize, I could not accept the plain fact that the shadow puppet plays are not public performances and that the puppeteers have no direct contact with the world on the other side. I chose to ignore this fact because it threatened to dismantle the conceptual model I had carried into the field—performance as an interactive event between tellers and listeners. I might have scrapped that assumption, except that I had no idea what would replace it. How could I analyze oral performance without an audience? The whole canon of performance studies—analyses of "verbal art," of tale-telling in Tuscany, of "talking sweet" in the West Indies—all turned on the role of the audience. My lodestone had always been Dell Hymes's definition of performance as an "event for which the doer assumes responsibility to be evaluated as a bearer of tradition," but I could see no such accountability in Kerala.15

Groping for new ground, I wondered if these temple-sponsored performances were "rituals," not storytelling events, and therefore did not require audiences. This is partially true, as we shall see. One form of Balinese shadow puppets, for example, is performed as temple ritual without a human audience, but wayang lemah is a brief performance during the day, with neither screen nor light, and does not involve the complicated storytelling and explication of the Kerala puppeteers.16 Likewise, in Java "[t]he vast majority of dhalangs [head puppeteers] keep very few people watching beyond halfway through the performance," but only in Kerala do the puppeteers present a full narrative performance for a truly absent audience.17 It also occurred to me thatthe medium of shadow puppetry, with its ventriloquism, shadows, and invisible performers, so completely severed the link with an audience that these plays were not performances at all. This, too, is only a partial explanation because other studies demonstrate that shadow puppet plays in India and southeast Asia entertain large audiences.18 Whatever explanatory escape hatch I sought, the nagging question remained: Where was that indispensable interaction between performers and audience in the listener-less puppet plays of Kerala?19

The absent audience sidetracked my original research goals in yet another way. Folklorists and anthropologists are interested in how performance constructs and reflects cultural meaning, and I set out to discover what the Kerala puppet play would reveal about the lived-in world around it. Drawing again on my earlier fieldwork, I assumed that the behavior of performers with their audience held as much explanatory, power as does behavior in other normative, public events, such as marriages or soccer matches. This idea became fixed when I read Ward Keeler's book, Javanese Shadow, Plays, Javanese Selves , in which he describes puppet plays in Java as a "series of relationships that can be compared with other (i.e., social and political) relations."20 Keeler convincingly argues that the puppet-play performances in lava are iconic with other local arenas of authority, that the interaction between the dhalang and his audience and patrons is analogous to that between other senior males (fathers, kings, ritual specialists) and their dependents. Like those powerful men, the dhalang is a "dissembled center" who seeks to resolve the paradox of having power and wanting to be seen not to exercise it; fascinated by the shadows and the dhalang's perceived power, audiences wish to limit his power and, at the same time, to ignore it in order to maintain self-control. Given the popularity of the Rama story, I anticipated that a study of the puppet play in Kerala would yield a rich harvest of similar insights.

The need for a different analytic model became unavoidable when I understood the full distance between the Kerala puppeteers and any potential audience. Performers are separated from audiences in all forms of puppetry, but especially in shadow puppet performances, which begin, not when the curtain comes up, but when it goes down! Among the shadow puppeteers of India, moreover, none are as isolated as those in Kerala. Only there, for instance, is the stage a permanent building; elsewhere it is a temporary shed erected for the night. This is an important point, for the men in the kuttu matam are not just invisible but are effectively cut off from any contact on the other side of the whitecloth screen. Rereading Keeler's book more carefully, I found that in the Javanese shadow puppet play the puppeteer is seen; he is, in fact, on view, for although by convention invited guests may sit on the shadow side of the screen, most people: "preferred to watch the puppet side, so that they could see the dhalang."21 In this respect, the Javanese performance exemplifies what Don Handelman calls a "mirror event," which displays public behavior (as a pageant or march) without the intention (as in rites of reversal) to alter it.22 Shadow puppet performance in Kerala, however, is not susceptible to this kind of sociological approach, and especially not to its visual metaphors. Eventually, I learned to think about the puppet play as verbal and interior, as a series of conversations within the drama-house. This is not to say that the tol pava kuttu is completely divorced from society—one of the main arguments in this book is that the Rama story told by the puppeteers is shaped by a local worldview. In the absence of visible interaction between performers and audience, however, to read performance as social behavior would be misleading.

Having reoriented my perspective to look inward, I then realized on my second field trip that the term "absent audience" is not entirely accurate either. Goddess Bhagavati, as host of the temple, is considered the ritual audience for performance (as in the legend of the puppet play's origin). Likewise, village committees, even if not physically present during performance, do monitor its quality in order to make decisions about whom to invite to sing at next year's festival. Nightly sponsors, whom the puppeteers salute as in the exchange translated above, are also important to please. These audiences do assess, at least obliquely, the puppeteers' display of competence, but a more immediate, interactive audience continued to elude me until I turned my full attention away from public patronage to the puppeteers inside the drama-house. On the morning after that first performance, while waiting for a bus at the tea stall, I understood that they perform for themselves, and after sitting in the small space night after night, I discovered that they create their own listeners within their telling of the Rama story. These experiences led me to the audience that I had originally set out to find—though in an unexpected place—inside performance.

This publicly absent, internalized audience of the Kerala puppet play sheds new light on oral performance in India. A convenient counterpart to this south Indian recitation of a medieval Tamil Ramayana, for example, is the north Indian recitation of a sixteenth-century Ramayana, the Ramcaritmanas by Tulsidas. This influential Hindi text is performedin several genres, of which the most spectacular is the Ram Lila drama, although the most comparable to the puppet play is known as katha .23 Like the puppet play in Kerala, katha is performed by male professional singers (vyas) who present the most important Rama text of their region, a bhakti Ramayana, in a combination of memorized verses and oral commentary. But the differences are also striking. First, unlike the Hindi recitation, the Kerala puppet play is rooted and continues to be transmitted in villages and small towns where it is performed and supported by non-Brahmins. Second, the Kerala performances move further from the source text than do the Hindi performances and even contradict Kampan in key episodes, as chapters 4 and 5 will illustrate. The critical difference, however, lies in the interaction between performer and audience. Many readers will have seen Ram Lila performances, especially the burning of Ravana's towering effigy, which draw hundreds of thousands of onlookers, and even the katha recitations of Tulsidas' epic poem by Brahmin expounders command large gatherings:

Ramayan expounders ... frequently pause to solicit affirmation and approbation.... Almost invariably a vyas [expounder] ... cultivates a special rapport with an appreciative and responsive individual in the audience. An expounder will often single out such listeners for special attention, developing a dialogue with them by glances and gestures and making them surrogates for the wider audience. This kind of behavior ... reflects the interactive milieu essential to good performance in the Indian context and is also a reminder of the archaic sense of katha as "conversation." (Lutgendorf 1991: 188-89)

This "interactive milieu," absent in Kerala, is characteristic of one kind of oral performance in India. Ram Lila, katha , and similar performances, particularly of epics, represent this type of performance, which is male, public, and professional. These performances attract both local and scholarly attention because they are important public displays of cultural knowledge and susceptible to the analytic models of visual behavior that I rejected as inappropriate for the puppet play. A second major type of performance in India, by contrast, is private (or semiprivate), non- (or semi-) professional, and largely female. Typically, in this kind of event, women tell tales and sing songs, usually in or around the home, often with little distinction between performer and audience. An example would be the women's group singing of the Rama story in Chattisgargh, as described by Joyce Flueckiger: in neighborhoods and temples, older women gather, sometimes with a literate leader, and sing verses from Tulsidas, but this time with a woman's slant, which introduces female characters (a wife for Guha the boatman, for example) not found in the Hindi text.24 Similarly, in a Telugu tradition reported by V. Narayana Rao, Rama's sister, Santa, is prominent and Sita is tricked into drawing Ravana's big toe that later springs to life.25 Public yet intimate, the Kerala puppet play combines elements of both the smaller, domestic events of women and the larger, open performances of men. Amid the scholarly debate on public and private spheres in Indian culture, the anomalous puppet play cautions that public performance is not always a behavioral display and may include the in-group communication of a domestic event.

The puppet play's internal dialogue leads to two final observations on audiences and performances in India. First, the puppet play resembles traditional Indian texts composed as conversations to be overheard by the reader, and Rama stories provide prime examples. Tulsidas's text and the Sanskrit Adhyatma Ramayana and Tattvasamgraharamayana , for instance, are all narrated by Siva to Parvati, not to mention Valmiki's text, in which Narada recounts Rama's history. to the poet. Likewise, two popular folk Ramayanas in Tamil (Catakantaravanan Katai and Mayiliravanan Katai ) are told by Narada to another sage, Gautama. Within these dialogic frames, textualized audiences are created whenever a character summarizes the plot to another character, as when Rama tells his story to Hanuman, who then narrates Sugriva's story to Rama, and so forth. Remembering these examples, I understood why listening to performances inside the drama-house sometimes felt more like reading a book than seeing a live performance. On the other hand, the persistence of the dialogic frame in literary forms of the Rama story might be further evidence of its oral origin and transmission. In either case, we are reminded that all texts, written or spoken, have audiences who play a part in the storytelling.

Equally important, an internal audience need not be passive in performance and is capable of playing the creative role of ordinary listeners. This aspect of the internal audience in oral narrative performance is explored, although in different terms, by John Miles Foley in his recent book on Serbo-Croatian epics.26 Drawing on reader reception theory, Foley introduces the notion of "traditional referentiality" in order to show that this epic tradition is sustained and recreated by the ability of audience members to understand the extratextual associations in performances. In fact, this is how the famous oral formulaic technique of composition works: when the guslar (singer) sings a line with a conventional allusion to the hero Marko, for instance, audience members(Foley argues) recall other attributes and exploits of Marko, thereby filling in the story. Performances of the Rama story in India assume a similar knowledge and stimulate a similar internal (and often external) participation on the part of audiences; writing on the Ram Lila in north India, Anuradha Kapur put it succinctly: "The ability to see a performance is as culturally bound as the performance itself."27 I hope to show that something like a shared referentiality exists among the puppeteers in Kerala and that it is essential to telling their Rama story in the drama-house.


Although an absent audience might suggest that the puppet play lacks popular support, its patronage system is firmly rooted in local society. The puppeteers earn money from two sources. The first (described above) is the one-rupee gift, given prior to performance, that earns a blessing from Bhagavati during a natakam performed in the middle of the night. An unpredictable amount determined by individual needs, whims, and factors beyond the control of the temple, it can reach several hundred, and sometimes several thousand, rupees that are then divided, usually half-and-half, between the troupe and the temple.28 Whatever the puppeteers earn from these one-rupee donations is "extra" money, however, because they are also paid for their labor through a second patronage system, which is administered by the temple. Between 1984 and 1989, my notes record that expenses for a night's performance ranged from 350 to 500 rupees. Of this total, each of the two or three puppeteers received anywhere from thirty to fifty rupees, and the accompanying drummers considerably less; remaining funds purchased ingredients for temple puja , food for the performers, eleven coconuts for the twenty-one shells, and the nearly one gallon of coconut oil necessary to keep the wicks burning all night. These expenses for a night's performance are often borne by a family, and sponsorship is so popular that families take out subscriptions long before the temple festival begins, even booking certain nights years in advance. If, for example, a child was cured of malaria after her family sponsored the night when Kumbhakarna is killed, that family might pledge to underwrite the performance of that episode every year for ten years. In return for this patronage, during the "Song of the Drama-House" (mata cintu ) the puppeteers praise the family (dutifully waiting outside to hear these words) in the mock-serious tones of the passage quoted earlier. They describe in detail the gracious hospitality and sumptuous meals they enjoyed in the family's home (instead of the local tea shop where, in fact, they ate very plain food at the sponsor's expense) and then ask Bhagavati to shower the family with blessings.

If not a family, an entire village (desam ) or an organization (police group, school) might pay the few hundred rupees necessary to sponsor a performance.29 At Palappuram, for instance (see chapter 8), seven of the seventeen nights are supported by villages lying within a few miles of the drama-house. During the weeks before the festival, each of these villages is scoured by enthusiastic young men brandishing ticket books at tea shops and bus stops in an attempt to waylay potential contributors. A considerably larger amount (approximately ten thousand to twelve thousand rupees) is also collected from families in each village in order to pay for a procession from the local temple to the temple at Palappuram on the last day of the festival. No other day matches this finale for pageantry, exhilaration, and sheer fun; after an elaborate puja in the local temple, several elephants, musical ensembles, and hundreds of people carrying embroidered cloth parasols and an enormous papier-mbch_ horse advance in procession from each of the satellite villages toward the Palappuram temple. When the seven village processions converge on the temple grounds in the evening, the horse effigies are carried back and forth in mock battles before a massive crowd. And that night, with a large pool of potential donors milling around on the temple grounds, the puppeteers perform the final episode of the puppet play, the coronation of Rama.

At some sites the puppet play is also indirectly supported by temple patronage in the form of donations of paddy from landowners, some of whom hold temple lands on lease. Some weeks before the festival, a large brass vessel, a para , is sent around to each wealthy household to be filled with about five kilograms of rice as an offering to Bhagavati. From the tons of paddy thus collected and deposited at the temple, the temple musicians, oracle-priest, and lampbearer each receive a fixed amount (nearly three hundred kilograms in 1986) as annual payment for services; the rice given by the oracle to the lead puppeteer on the first night of performance also comes from this store. Since the 1970s, however, when Kerala's Communist (CPI) government redistributed the lands of large landowners and temple estates to the tenants, this source of patronage for the puppet play has dwindled. In areas where land hadbelonged mainly to these estates, temple festivals and puppet plays have ceased after generations of performance, and to a puppeteer who performs at only five or ten temples annually, the loss of one site delivers a hard financial blow. On the other hand, where smaller family and village patronage had supported performances, the puppet play has not suffered badly from this transfer of land ownership. During five years of research, I observed isolated signs of growth: puppeteers began to perform at four more temples and for more nights at two others.

As a field researcher, I, too, was both patron and audience, although I pretended that this was not so. Other ethnographies of performance in South Asia had demonstrated the interpretive rewards of a self-reflexive perspective, especially Kirin Narayan's study of a swami's tales in India30 and Margaret Mills' analysis of tales in Afghanistan,31 but I preferred to consider myself absent from the performances I recorded. If sessions with the swami and the Afghan tellers were private, almost personal, and open-ended, shadow puppet plays in Kerala, I convinced myself, were different because they are more impersonal and formal. In fact, I chose to study this tradition in the first place because I wished to document an "authentic" performance event that reflected local culture unaffected by foreigners. If the previous sentence reads like a primer from the pre-postmodern age of enthnographic innocence, I did believe that my pretended non-presence would enhance the credibility of the event and, hence, my account of it. Retrograde thinking dies hard, and I am not yet convinced that the new convention of honest presence avoids any more deception than does the old fiction of feigned absence. But I now realize that my naive concept of authenticity was a shield behind which I could retreat into the role of detached observer and avoid the awkward duties of patron with its messy money transactions.

Without a large public audience on the other side, however, the shield hid little. Sitting on the mats night after night inside the drama-house with the puppeteers, I was often sleepy and sometimes bored but could not avoid becoming part of their internal audience. Still, I tried hard to escape the role of host. My rule in previous research projects had been to pay performers only if I had asked them to perform (the "induced performance"); recording a public, scheduled performance, in my code, required permission of performers and organizers but no payment. During my first extended trip to Kerala, in fact, I did not pay performers, with the result, I believe, that one particular troupe became uncooperative and eventually prevented me from recording an important episode at a major temple site; others, apparently, did not considerlack of payment a breach of any kind. A small number of scholars who preceded me in working with the puppeteers had certainly raised expectations for hefty payments. According to the sketchy details given by the puppeteers, a French woman once showed up with a video team, requested a special performance (outside the drama-house), and handed over thousands of rupees before leaving the following day. Other foreigners who stayed for a few weeks also paid handsome sums for puppets. I could not compete with that procedure, although on my second trip I mended fences with the uncooperative group and began to pay a small amount (Rs 50-100) to all performers whom I taped inside the drama-house. In the end, of course, my presence did affect what was said, but only (as far as I can detect) on occasion. A humorous aside about patrons who do not pay performers before they sing, for example, was a veiled criticism of me, anti one puppeteer prematurely inserted the story of how Kampan composed his epic, explaining later: "I don't usually tell the story here, but I thought you would like to hear it tonight."

All this does not mean that I did not form personal relationships with the puppeteers, but I did attempt to downplay them during performances. Most people viewed my work with the half-bothered, half-fascinated eye cocked toward the inexplicable mannerisms of foreigners. My ability to speak Tamil, the mother tongue of most of the puppeteers, went some distance toward making friends, although only Natesan Pillai seemed to understand what I was doing and why. Other puppeteers were mildly pleased at my presence in the drama-house, though rarely impressed, and often nonplussed; most slept while I worked. My presence did not greatly affect performance, but it affected me, my experience of the puppet play, and the way I have written this book.

This Book

Following this initial chapter and its discussion of audience, the next chapter introduces the Kampan text and places it within the history, of Palghat and the shadow puppet play. The puppet play's accommodation of Kampan's devotional Hinduism with folk Hinduism is introduced in chapter 3 and illustrated by the two subsequent chapters. Chapter 4 describes the highly controversial meeting betweenSurpanakha and Rama on the banks of the Godavari River and analyzes the significance of an added episode in which Laksmana kills Surpanakha's son. Chapter 5 discusses the puppeteers' treatment of another contentious episode, Vali's death, especially Rama's unusual admission of wrongdoing. This first half of the book demonstrates the general point that the puppet play complicates Kampan's text, placing the moral relations between Rama and his enemies on a new footing, without a substantial revision of its content.

The analysis in the second half of the book (chapters 6-8) shifts from narrative content to the puppeteers' commentary and conversations. My argument in these chapters will be that these techniques enable the puppeteers to gain control over Kampan's text in performance. Chapter 6 describes the oral commentary, which spins auxiliary stories and quotations around the text in order to place it within a wider frame of reference: Kampan's individual verses, I will suggest, become stepping stones to that wider world of Rama stories, from which his text derives. Chapter 7 details the conversations in performance and argues that this dialogism further weakens the poet's voice and permits the puppeteers to tell a Rama story in their own terms. The final chapter brings together the earlier analysis of narrative with the later analysis of conversation in a discussion of countervailing voices that challenge the bhakti ideals of Kampan's text: specifically, I discuss Sita's anger and Jambuvan's cynicism as expressions of the puppet play's skepticism toward the bhakti text's attempts at restoration, especially Rama's coronation.

Beginning with chapter 3, these points are made with reference to performances in translation, which represent the puppeteers' Rama story as I recorded it inside the drama-house. I have worked directly from cassette recordings and not from an intermediary transcription because I believe that by continually rehearing (as opposed to rereading) a performance, one maintains close contact with the original voice; the puppeteers' voice, of course, cannot be fully captured in English, and others must judge the success of my efforts. Certainly any reader familiar with the Rama tale will soon realize that the translations in this book do not tell the whole story; no single Rama story does, but I have made decisions that severely abbreviate the plot of the puppet play. First, I decided not to include the entire series of overnight performances of more than one hundred hours and instead chose the most dramatic nights of performance: Rama's meeting with Surpanakha (chapter 4); Rama's killing of Vali (chapter 5); Ravana's first defeat (chapter 6); thedeath of Indrajit (chapter 7); Ravana's death and Rama's coronation (chapter 8). Second, although each night of performance is preceded by the same introduction ("The Song of the Drama-House"), it is translated only once, in chapter 3. Third, I begin the puppeteers' narration of the story with the Surpanakha episode (chapter 4) in the middle of the Forest Book because this is the point from which the puppeteers usually begin their story, and for good reason as we shall see. As a result, large portions of the subsequent books are omitted, although much of the long and important War Book is presented.

Omissions and abridgements have also been made within these selected performances. I have at times abbreviated the rambling and ponderous verbal marathon of the commentary (and indicated these omissions in notes), although I have retained some repetitions and digressions because they take the reader inside the experience of the puppet play. I have also omitted verse lines regularly repeated during the commentary as a mnemonic device, and I have summarized transitions between scenes, just as the puppeteers do in their prose summary (avatarikai ), by placing them within brackets. Nor have I translated all the verses sung in performance. Because my aim is to analyze the puppet play as an adaptation of Kampan's Ramayana, most folk verses are translated, whereas Kampan's verses are translated only when they are necessary for a comprehension of the commentary. Omitting the Kampan verses does not seriously affect an understanding of the story, however, because their content is recounted in the commentary, which carries the narrative burden in the puppet play. Finally, I sometimes use English terms for certain Indic words ("old legends" for purana ; "old books" for sastra , and so forth) because those original words, even when "translated" in a glossary, remain lifeless. "Demon," admittedly, is not a happy choice for raksasa , but it is an advance over its predecessor, "ogre," and I have provided a gloss in a footnote at its first usage. Although something is lost by each of these decisions, I have come to accept that something greater will be gained if they enable readers to enjoy the Rama story as told by the puppeteers in Kerala.

What we read in this book, then, is not the entire series of twenty or thirty nights of performance, whose length, repetitions, and sometimes uninspired commentary were never intended to be read, let alone printed in English. We read instead a selection of performances, whose narrative and interpretive innovations teach us that text and audience are never quite what or where we think they are. These are the lessons learned after that first night at Suhavaram undid my original researchplans. An absent audience meant that I could not investigate performance as cultural behavior, and so I reset my sights within the drama-house, where I discovered that the Kampan text was less important than the puppeteers' oral commentary. From this vantage point, I also saw that the puppeteers tell their own Rama story, faithful to Kampan's yet slanted to a local morality, and that they tell it to themselves.


Excerpted from Inside the Drama-House by Stuart Blackburn Copyright © 1996 by Stuart Blackburn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Transliteration
Ch. 1 An Absent Audience 1
Ch. 2 Rama Stories and Puppet Plays 22
Ch. 3 Ambivalent Accommodations: Bhakti and Folk Hinduism 39
Ch. 4 The Death of Sambukumaran: Kama and Its Defense 59
Ch. 5 Killing Vali: Rama's Confession 79
Ch. 6 Ravana's First Defeat: The Puppeteers' Oral Commentary 95
Ch. 7 The Death of Indrajit: Creating Conversations 134
Ch. 8 Rama's Coronation: The Limits of Restoration 194
Appendix A: Three Samples of the Puppeteers' Commentary in Transliteration 241
Appendix B: Sample Commentary in Tamil Script 243
Appendix C: Main Characters in the Puppeteers' Rama Story 244
Notes 247
Glossary 267
Bibliography 271
Index 287
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