The greatest inheritance is the inheritance of knowledge.
Moozhikkal Pankajakshi being the last link to the puppetry art form of ‘Nokkuvidya Pavakkali’, did not want this age-old tradition to die with her.
She started training her granddaughter, Renjini KS, who is now the only person in the world known to practise this art.
“I really wanted to study after the fifth standard but being the eldest of all siblings, my parents expected me to start accompanying them in performance tours. Then I got interested and was keen to learn the art form,” says the 84-year-old Padma Shri awardee Moozhikkal Pankajakshi. And the same goes true today as well- when her heart still wants to perform the art she once lived by but health conditions expect otherwise.
Nokkuvidya Pavakkali is a rare art of puppetry where puppets attached at the top of a high stick are balanced on the upper lip of the puppeteer. It is a traditional art form of Kerala where Noku means vision and Vidya is knowledge.
It is called so because the puppets placed almost 2.5 ft above the upper lip need a lot of concentration through the eyes where the artist has to constantly stare at the puppets and move them when required.
It is believed that the origin of Nokkuvidya Pavakkali goes back to the time when Lord Shiva, in order to entertain goddess Parvati, chiselled puppets out of Ezhilam Paala, a tropical tree and narrated stories.
The Velan community in Kerala picked up this craft from there and started performing it to tell the tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata on various occasions. The Moozhikkal family has been involved in this practice for over five centuries now.
The greatest inheritance is the inheritance of knowledge. Pankajakshi being the last link to this art form, she did not want this age-old tradition to die with her, so she started training her granddaughter, Renjini KS, who is now the only person in the world known to practice Nokkuvidya Pavakkali. Padma awards this year gave Moozhikkal all her due credit for preserving and carrying forward the spirit of the art form.
She was honoured with the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India. Her grandchildren tell us that despite being happy about getting an award and meeting people who congratulate her daily, she is not aware enough to understand the value of Padma awards.
“She got a stroke a few years back, after which her mental state got a little disturbed. She fails to express what she means, and sometimes says anything,” says Anand MR, Pankajakshi’s elder grandson who now manages tours for Renjini to perform.
What started as an art form to be performed in temples and aristocratic houses, is now performed by the Moozhikkal family all over the world in different art and tourism festivals.
“I won’t say that it brings home enough money but we manage with our other sources of income,” says Anand MR.
Coming from a small family in Monipally village of Kottayam, Pankajakshi had not expected that she would go this far with Nokkuvidya Pavakkali. Had it not been for her late husband Shivaram Panicker, she believes that she would not have built her identity through her talent.
“He would tell her to practice and leave the rest of the work to him,” say her grandchildren with pride. Till today, they pray to their late grandfather before every performance and call the puppets made by him a ‘precious gift’ which has to be kept safely.
They regularly repaint and re-dress the puppets and use the same, almost two-decade-old puppets for their performances.
When the 12-year-old Pankajakshi started learning from her mother, she would practice for three to four hours daily by juggling three balls for balance and concentration.
She kept practising unless she could juggle grains of rice perfectly. Then she learned how to balance a plate on a stick kept on the upper lip to get the hang of what she was to perform all her life.
Nokkuvidya Pavakkali, both learning and performing, is not a piece of cake. Renjini claims that it took her two years only to learn how to balance and five years in total to master the art.
“My entire body used to pain; it still does because the whole body is involved when you perform but my grandmother was very strict while teaching. I think the only thing that kept me going was my brothers’ promises to give me ice-cream if I practised,” chuckles the 21-year-old performer.
On being asked if she would continue it in the future, she says, “My future depends on it now. I will definitely do it and teach my children as well.”
As far as Pankajakshi’s faint memory permits her to remember, her most fond memory has been her performance in Paris almost 10 years back.
“She came back and told us that all the foreigners were hugging her and telling how good the presentation was. It was her dream to visit abroad and she did it,” adds Anand excitedly.
Today, Pankajakshi does not perform or rather ‘cannot’ perform because if she could have, she would have.
Many of her friends used to perform when very young but ‘they left it for living a regular life’.
“Jeevan jeene ke peechhe unhonein sab chhod diya,” says Anand translating her grandmother’s thoughts.
The Moozhikkal family believes that it is essential to understand one’s roots and culture. They perform the stories from the puranas so that people understand the moral messages behind our scriptures.
In conclusion, I would not hesitate to state that an artistic grandmother, two musicians, and an unimaginable amount of concentration is what goes into performing Nokkuvidya Pavakkali.
“And an equally passionate audience,” Renjini completes my sentence smartly.
Well, that’s what worked for this family.