15-year-old Renjini is the only practitioner of a delicate ancestral art. In Kerala, a centuries old legacy comes to life with wooden string puppets - on the tip of her lips.
Renjini’s eyes are fixed firmly on an ancient demi-god flying above her.
In a remote corner of Kerala, a state shrouded in legend and folklore, echoes from mythical folk tales are relived even today.
Only Renjini isn’t the damsel in distress that Sita was. And Ravana will dare not kidnap this young girl.
This time around, Ravana is at the mercy of this adolescent.
15-year-old Renjini is said to be the only person in the world today that can maneuver the entire saga on the tip of her lips – on a pole of string alone.
The entire epic of Ramayana rests precariously on her face. One wrong move and the legend could fall to the ground like a pack of cards.
But Renjini isn’t going to let that happen. Her eyes hold control of the famed demi god in ways that might even amaze Rama.
Upon her falls the shadow of a much older puppetry wizard. Pankajajkshi earnestly peeps over her granddaughter’s dance with the devil. And why wouldn’t she? She was, after all, the sole choreographer.
Nokkuvidhya Pavakalli, is an indigenous puppet theatre form practiced for centuries by Pankajakshi’s ancestors in Kerala. The secrets of this art lie with her family alone. To this day, they remain the sole practitioners.
In the muddied walls of her home in Monipally, 78-year-old Pankajakshi tells me she no longer practices it. And yet, failing health has not dimmed the sparkle in her eyes.
I can only imagine the same spark in her as a 12-year-old child, narrating the glorious ballad door-to-door, across the villages near Kottayam and Ernakulam. Performing an art that’s been carefully passed down from over five generations to her.
Now the youngest of their kin plays out magic tricks on a rod of strings.
Whispers of the village have echoed across the centuries.
To see the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana come alive on the little space between her lips and nose, balanced on a bunch of strings is a bit like watching a magic show.
Renjini prepares her next spell. She carefully places the hexagonal star-shaped diya stand above her face. With one hand, she lights a candle, the light shining upon her naïve face.
Pankajakshi’s gaze is fixed on her granddaughter’s every move. “Our family’s tradition was very famous in those days. We were invited to perform at every festival.”
There’s a slight quiver in Renjini’s movements. If she loses focus, the diya stand will topple over her face.
Pankajakshi goes on: “Every puppet you see here is crafted by my husband. He passed away some years back and a part of the tradition is gone with him. Now none of us know how to make the puppet dolls.”
Renjini strains her eyes to keep her grip on the candle stand. Her body starts swaying to the flicker of the tiny candles lit above her.
“My father taught me to pass on the legacy. Renjini has to pass on this tradition and keep it alive.”
Renjini dances along, in rhythm with the spark blinking over her face.
After all, this is no illusory trick. As Renjini explains, “It was very painful to learn it. I suffered from many wounds at first, but I didn’t mind.” She started learning at the age of eight, but her grandmother believes she still has a long way to go.
“Now I’m the only one who can practice our ancestral art.”
Throughout the day, Pankajakshi wears a childlike innocence and smiles gleefully. She speaks to me in Malayalam like I’m an old friend; in another language she tries to reveal the secrets of her art.
The art form remains visibly trapped within her but she’s unable to pass it on. She struggles to tell us the nuances of her puppet dance… she seems to have forgotten.
At the core of their ancestral art, lies an uncanny secret to their performance: balance.
Teetering on the edge, yet always upright. Literally hanging by a string of thread. Renjini has inherited the art of balance… and she showcases it with subtle naivety and grace.
She carries this naiveté grace into extending this act of balance – right from her ancestors to her future generations. Just so the tradition doesn’t drop to the ground and perish away in the sands of time.
The young puppeteer starts packing away each of the puppets neatly in a huge black suitcase. Characters from the epics, embodiments of life in the village, frozen faces from folklore… all stacked one on top of each other.
For a young girl who’s used to pulling the strings, her own fate is sealed.
She is the last Puppet Wizard, the only protector of her ancient past. The history, culture and wisdom of generations before her lie in her hands.
Ancient texts say God is a puppeteer and the universe, his stage.
In the heart of the Western Ghats, Renjini takes over the mantle. The fate of the epic legends she performs is now closely intertwined with her own.