Published: 17th February 2021
Inker Robotics is preserving the art of Tholapavakoothu by automating the dying artform for the current generation to enjoy
Inker Robotics has managed to automate a traditional artform that has existed in Kerala for over 4,000 years by working closely with the artists who still practice it
Tholapavakoothu is an ancient form of shadow puppetry that has existed in Kerala for the past 4,000 years. Those who still practise it believe that the artform will die within the next two generations. Impossible to make a living out of it in the modern world, young people from the communities that can perform the art are slowly diminishing in numbers. So Inker Robotics, a Thrissur-based company and research institute, is working closely with them to bring it back to life.
“These puppets are made out of the skin of animals,” explains CEO Rahul P Balachandran, “And naturally, it requires a very specific skillset. They say it takes around four to ten days to make even a single puppet. Once they are made, they have people who can perform the movements with their hands. Even less than ten years ago, people used to flock to temple festivals to witness Tholapavakoothu in action. There is a generation that wishes it were still alive and another generation that is slowly beginning to forget it. This is when we considered the idea of automating the tradition.”
CULTURE HACK: The team worked closely with the community
The team behind the idea knew that the historic and fictional stories should be the first aspect of the art to be kept alive. Working closely with the Pulavar family who have traditionally engaged in performing the artform, they were able to collect and store them. The team has built a screen that senses an individual if they stand in front of it. For three minutes, automated puppets are able to play one of the stories exactly as they are meant to be told.
Currently, the live model is displayed at the District Heritage Museum in Palakkad. Rahul says, “There are many artforms that are dying. So this can really benefit our culture as a whole. We are focusing on doing a lot of things in the area of heritage and culture using Robotics. We are talking to ministers to ensure that we can take this concept to different levels. The transition into this is also important in terms of creating awareness among people. There are different kinds of robots like humanoids, industrial ones and drones. Each of them have a purpose.”
Set up in July 2018, the intention behind Inker Robotics was to impart quality education in Robotics. A few months after testing the waters, they realised that there was a major gap between what the industry was looking for and what the academic world was offering. So they decided to build their own robots. Rahul concludes, “We are also setting up robotic labs in schools. There is a myth that people will lose their jobs if robots become more common. But that’s not true, we are interconnected. If anything, robots help create more jobs.”