Asian Theatre Journal 18.2 (2001) 282-283
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Borrowed Fire is a clear and poetic documentation of tol pava kuttu, the shadow theatre of Kerala, India. The film communicates the cultural context of the theatre and documents its changes in this generation, focusing on pulavar (master puppeteer) Krishankutty and his sons, whose work has been discussed in Friedrich Seltmann's Schattenspiel in Kerala (1986) and Stuart Blackburn's Inside the Drama-House (1996). The film begins with the founding myth of the theatre: the goddess Badra Kali (Durga) was unable to see the actual events of the Ramayana because she was busy fighting the buffalo-headed demon. As a result, a shadow-play version of the epic must be performed annually at her shrines as entertainment for the goddess. The performance, which can take up to twenty-one nights, is presented during the temple festival at a permanent puppet stage in the temple compound. The viewing by the goddess precludes the necessity of a human audience.
The camera work is visually pleasing and the coverage deft. The video gives pertinent information on the text, drawn from Kampan's twelfth-century Tamil version of the Ramayana. Focus is given to the life and training of personnel, while the making of puppets is treated briefly. The story is outlined; the major characters (Rama, Sita, Ravana) are introduced; and basic episodes such as Rama's hunting of the golden deer, the kidnapping of Sita, and the deaths of Indrajit and Ravana are discussed. It is admirable how concisely the storyline is conveyed in a few brief episodes from the complex epic. The quick cut from the puppet image being manipulated by the visible puppeteer to the action of the shadow figure on the screen gives the viewer an understanding of what transpires on both sides of the screen. We see how the play fits into the context of the temple festival, and we are shown that the tradition [End Page 282] of oral text recitation presented by the tol pava kuttu is endangered by growing urbanization and commercialization as well as by the changing modes of educating the young.
The video ends on an equivocal note. A wish for the art's preservation is contrasted with the likelihood that Krishankutty will be the last pulavar. In one image we see the oblong palm leaf from which the puppet master memorizes his text dissolving into the oblong screen on which the shadow figures actualize the story. The voice-over quotes a line from the epic: "Here one can see everything in the world. There is nothing in the world that is not here." Thus the connection of the textual and performative tradition is valorized. In the following scene we see the aged puppeteer standing in the surf as the voice-over, representing his thoughts, states: "This art will never die, that is my hope." The film narration (written by Salil Singh) goes on, however, to point out that "only time will tell," for the puppet stage is lit by "borrowed fire"--that is, the flame that lights the puppet screen comes ritually at the beginning of each performance from the sanctuary of the goddess's temple. This implies that without religious devotion to fuel the art, it will disappear. Already patronage is limited and viewership by audiences is in decline.
The film shows the difficulty of passing this art from one generation to the next. It is not likely that the pulavar's grandsons will undergo the same intensive apprenticeship as his sons did. Throughout the film Krishankutty's memory of his training, which required him to rise at 4 a.m. to learn recitation, is contrasted with his son's memories. They say they started their work at 6 a.m. and doubt they will train their children in the same intensive way. City life's encroachments on an agricultural lifestyle are implied in the film's imagery. The possibility of modern jobs...