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Monday, September 10, 2012

PULIKALI - leopards and tigers tell tales

Pulikali is a vibrant folk dance form with a historical legacy that has adapted to contemporary social mores and is performed prominently in the town of Thrissur. The word ‘puli’ in Malayalam refers to both leopards and tigers and the word ‘kali’ means play and the words together means ‘ translating to a play about leopards or tigers’. 

Performed by trained artists to entertain people on the occasion of Onam, the annual harvest festival in Kerala, performances consist of tableaux of performers as vividly painted representations of tigers, hunters and other animals, enacting stories about tigers hunting other animals and human hunters stalking tigers accompanied by percussion ensembles.

The Maharaja of Kochi Rama Varma ‘Sakthan Thampuran’ is believed to have introduced the folk art more than 200 years ago. In keeping with martial traditions of his army, he sought a form that reflected the macho ethos of his fighting forces to celebrate Onam.  A striking feature of this folk art is the vividly colored make up of the performers. A mixture of tempera and varnish or sometimes enamel is used to make the paint. To start with, hair is carefully removed from the bodies of the dancers. The base coat of paint is then applied. A couple of hours to allow the paint to dry and then the second coat applied and topped off with intricate design motifs. This entire process takes several hours and often starts in the early hours of the morning.

On the fourth day of Onam celebrations, performers painted in yellow, red, and black dance to the pulsating rhytms ‘udukkus and ‘thakils’. The udukku is a percussion instrument, a hollow double ended drum which tapers towards the middle from either side, for ease of holding in hand. The player holds this percussion instrument in a horizontal position. The pitch of the instrument can be varied either by tightening or loosening the rope that gives tension for the leather surface. The thakil is a two-sided, barrel shaped percussion instrument made from the wood of a jackfruit tree and leather and is played by using a stick on one side and capped fingers on the other side.

By afternoon groups of performers or 'sangams' as they are called and floats from different areas of Thrissur town and its neighborhood move in a procession, dancing and miming their parts to the beat of the drums. The different troupes vie with each other to make the best floats as well as the best dressed tigers. The processions eventually converge on a roundabout in the heart of the city. Thousands of spectators line the streets cheering the dancers with some of them even trying to join in. The performances end in front of an ancient temple, the Vadakkunnathan Temple and performers will offer a coconut each to Ganesh, the Hindu god of fortune. 
Over the years, there have been many changes in the adornment of Pulikali dancers. In the past, masks were not used at all and participants would have themselves painted all over. However, today ready made masks, cosmetic teeth, tongues, beards, mustaches and broad belts with jingles are available for use by the performers.