Sunday, December 8, 2013

Borrowed Fire: The Shadow Puppets of Kerala

"...a clear and poetic admirable achievement" 

Asian Theatre Journal:  Review of  "Borrowed Fire"

My friend Salil Singh and I completed this documentary in 2000. 


On the southwestern coast of India, an extraordinary performing art has evolved over many centuries.It is known as Tolpava Koothu--"the Play of Leather Shadows." Performed in special outdoor theatres facing temples of the goddess Bhadrakali, it enacts the story of the Ramayana, the most sacred of Hindu epics.

Krishnankutty Pulavar was the last of the masters who have devoted their lives to this art. "Borrowed Fire" is the story of his lifelong struggle to keep his art alive. It is also the story of those who undertake the marathon task of performing the play with him. In the quiet solitude of night, lit only by the flickering light of oil lamps, shadow figures of gods and demons dance in the hands of ordinary men. Verses from their ancient text written on palm leaves echo through the night as the puppeteers perform--for twenty-one nights, all night, until dawn, to enact their story from beginning to end. And, most astoundingly, they do this even in the complete absence of any human audience, for, as they believe, they are performing for the gods themselves.

Critical Acclaim

High Praise for Borrowed Fire, from distinguished observers..

Borrowed Fire is exceptionally helpful in teaching about the almost endless variety of Indian theatre. It is especially useful in pointing out the multiple forms that shadow puppetry has taken and above all is valuable in preserving a form that is on the verge of extinction. The video is given much added depth by including so fully the context in which this particular form of shadow puppetry exists, giving it a very human as well as artistic interest. Few of us would ever have the opportunity to observe this particular dramatic form and it seems a special blessing that it allows the viewer to enter into the experience on so many levels. It contributes greatly to an appreciation of the complexity of Indian theatre.
  • Dr. Oscar G. Brockett, Theatre historian and Professor Emeritus, Theatre History, The University of Texas at Austin.

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. 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. It is admirable how concisely the story line is conveyed in a few brief episodes from the complex epic. Overall the film is an admirable accomplishment. This film offers a useful insight into the shadow-puppet theatre of Kerala and will be of interest to anyone interested in puppetry, Indian performing arts, and social change in Kerala.

  • Dr. Kathy Foley, Chair, Theatre, The University of California-Santa Cruz, writing in The Asian Theatre Journal.

Borrowed Fire offers outsiders the opportunity to learn about a traditional puppet performance in Kerala's Hindu temples, which is in danger of disappearing after the current generation. The informative film shows the passing on of this oral tradition, its aging patrons and performers, and the palm manuscripts on which its repertoire is written. Flat buffalo-hide puppets and a special puppet house in temple compounds create a show which few watch, but since it is for the gods, who are always in attendance at the temple, the show goes on. The Ramayana, one of India's major epics, is the basis for episodes performed over several weeks year after year during temple festivals. Students of Indian culture, traditional performance, puppetry, and artistic traditions will especially appreciate this film, as will those interested in Kerala's traditions and the interface between religion and performance.
I have already asked our library to order the film, and will be using it as the final exam film in my ethnographic films course this semester.

  • Dr. Joan Erdmann, Prof. of Anthropology, Columbia College, Chicago, IL.

The production is of the highest quality and is very informative about social conditions in Kerala. Because of the economic and social circumstances in this lush and beautiful state, the traditions of an ancient culture are being forever changed by the press of modernity and global commerce--in Kerala's case, international tourism. This video is a valuable document of that inevitable change and what will probably be lost as a consequence. Capturing on video what the live performer takes for granted is more difficult than it seems. In this video, there is intimate footage of backstage activities during performances and interviews with family/troupe members about the survival of the troupe and the art."

  • Dr. Robert Amsden, Chair, Theatre, Ripon College, WI.

Educational Resource

"Borrowed Fire" is now in the library collections of leading universities & colleges.

Here is a partial list:

  • Yale University
  • UCLA
  • Columbia University
  • University of Glasgow
  • Carthage College
  • Indiana University
  • Emory University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa
  • Ohio University
  • Syracuse University
  • Univ. of Texas at Austin
  • Texas A&M
  • Franklin & Marshall College
  • UC Davis
  • Hunter College
  • Bowling Green State University
  • Muhlenberg College
  • Bates College
  • Carnegie-Mellon University 
  • Royal Holloway University of London
  • Columbia College, Chicago
  • Northern Illinois University
  • Marlboro College
  • Bates College
  • Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
  • SUNY Stony Brook
  • Minnesota State University
  • Worcester State College