Tholpavakoothu is shadow puppetry from Kerala. It is a ritualistic art form that has been a part of Kerala’s culture and originated in the 18th century is also known as pavakoothu (puppet play) or nizhalattam (shadow play). This entertainment art is performed on a special stage called koothumadam in the temple courtyard. Puppets (pavakal), usually representing four characters from the Ramayana, are arranged behind a long white screen, in front of bright wick lamps.
Tholpavakoothu puppets are made of deerskin. While formerly the puppets were made out of deerskin, the use of buffalo and ox skin is now commonly used. The puppets are held by a thin stick in one hand while the limbs are manipulated by a thinner stick held in another hand of the puppeteer. The figures are drawn on the skin, cut out, and embellished with dots, lines, and holes. When the skin is completely dehumidified all the hair on it is removed by scraping the surface with a sharp–edged piece of bamboo. Then the puppet figure is drawn clearly on it and cut out with a fine chisel. The eyes, noses, and lips are also drawn on the puppet, and cut-out ornaments and dress are drawn by drilling different kinds of holes in the skin for which special pointed chisels are used.
Puppets are painted with different colors, the original method of making natural colors was by boiling the wooden pieces of different woods, the result was good, strong, and lasting, these become very attractive when shades of other colors merge in them, Deerskin is used to make the puppets as it is considered sacred and divine while making the puppets the hair of the skin is removed and the outline of the puppets is drawn over it. Then it will be cut carefully to size for setting proper facial expression with decorations to the puppets the different types of chisels are used, this being a dedicated job. It should be done with utmost care. Then flexible hands made of deer skins are attached to the puppet. A bamboo stick is fixed vertically along with the puppet and lay holding this stick, movement of the play will be controlled according to the circumstances. There must be above 150 puppets made in different positions standing, fighting, sitting and lying, etc to conduct this play based on “Kamba Ramayana”.