Kerala’s folk art form, Pulikkali or The Tiger Dance, is a fantastic spectacle of tradition, art and enthusiasm.
As the evening sets in on the fifth day of Onam, Kerala’s biggest festival, an unusual sight is witnessed on the street that encircles the city’s iconic Vadakkunnathan Temple, in the legendary temple-town of Thrissur. For a millisecond you may wonder, if you are actually looking at a mixed pack of unleashed wild animals such as tigers, lions or leopards moving around freely! You breathe a sigh of relief as it turns to be a procession of men, covered in full body-paint inspired by a variety of wild cats. The crowd dances to a catchy three-beat rhythm of drums played by the musicians accompanying them. Attached to their waists is a belt of bells, which jingles in sync with the music as the dancers move their waists and perform the art form decked as tigers with peculiar steps resembling the tiger.
The street is choc-a-block with cheering onlookers, who fill every empty spot, be it the pavements, adjoining buildings or the grounds sloping down from the temple, to catch a glimpse of ‘Pulikkali’ or ‘The Tiger Dance’ that showcases a slice of Thrissur’s heritage. Encouraged by the appreciation pouring from the crowd, the dancers move like big cats and shake their bellies and faces, which are covered by masks. Each troupe consisting of 30-50 dancers, is followed by a large tableau depicting a theme inspired by mythology or a current subject. The party stops and performs in front of the judges’ deck at Naduvilal Junction and the entire spectacle carries on till late into the night.
The origin of Pulikkali dates back to about 200 years and there are different versions of how it came into being. A popular narration states that Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran of Cochin (1769-1805), introduced the dance as part of Onam celebrations. He wished to incorporate a celebration (that showcased their martial attributes) performed by his soldiers, for the harvest festival. Another account states that Pulikkali was once performed by Muslims during Muharram and hence was brought to Kerala by them.
As per a third version, British officers posted in the area in earlier times wanted to know more about the appearance and behaviour of tigers. The Maharaja came up with a novel idea to meet their request. He asked a group of men to dress and act like tigers. Local artists immediately got to work with their pigments and painted the bodies of men to appear like tigers. On their part, the men imitated a few steps of the big cats of the forest. The performance was such a success that it soon became a regular affair and the highlight of the Onam celebrations at Thrissur, with men from different walks of life and religions participating in it. As time passed, people of Thrissur started looking forward to the Pulikkali performance and even men looked forward to participating in the performance. Travellers marked their calendar to ensure they were at Thrissur on the Pulikkali performance day. The rest, as they say, is history.
The excitement of the festival starts building up in advance as `tiger teams’ are put together by different local clubs and neighbourhoods. Participants from outstation typically travel to the city a day in advance. While they enjoy the buzz of the performance and dancing, they believe it is their duty to keep their heritage alive. Many have been part of Pulikkali for years and say they will continue to participate till their bodies allow them to. Artists – both local and from nearby towns, volunteer to paint `the big cats’. And residents of Thrissur strive to get a vantage spot to see the performance.
A work of art
Artists start painting the men early in the mornings and one of the main venues is schools, which are closed on account of Onam. A lamp is lit, and after breaking a coconut and saying their prayers, the artists pick up their brushes and get on to work. The hair on the torso is removed, and a base coat is first applied and allowed to dry. The participant men typically wear shorts during the session.
In recent years, men with large bellies have been in demand as a large belly means a large face and greater impact when it is wriggled! Usually the face of a tiger, leopard or lion is painted on the belly, and the arms, legs and back of the dancer are painted with stripes or spots. Painting a single person may take three-four hours and more. While in the past, the face would also be painted, performers now opt to wear face-masks for an enhanced effect. Opting for a mask also reduces the risk of inhaling paint and makes eating and drinking easier during the festival.
The changing face of Pulikkali
Year 2016, witnessed a historic moment in Pulikkali. For the first time, four women participated in the tiger dance! This pathbreaking step opened a new chapter in Pulikkali’s twocentury old history that had only seen men participating. The crowds cheered the `tigresses’ whole-heartedly as the women danced for hours along with the other participants. The wonderful response from the audiences last year has raised expectations and viewers are looking forward to witnessing an entire troupe of women tigers at this year’s Pulikkali festival.
Words: BRINDA GILL