THE DAY WHEN HUNDREDS OF ‘POT BELLIES’ TURN INTO TIGER FACES.
Pulikali is a magnificently colorful recreational folk art practiced in Kerala, South India. It is usually performed towards the end of the mega Onam festival of Kerala. Trained and talented artists perform with vigor and enthusiasm to entertain ecstatic crowds on this day. Pulikali literally means ‘play of the tigers’. It is a dramatic and energetic performance that revolves around the theme of tigers and hunters having an amusing time. There is no abuse or cruelty involved. It is rather a fun filled gesture of hide and seeks between the tiger and its hunter. This folk art is predominantly practiced in the Thrissur district of Kerala. The ideal venue to experience this spectacular show is at Swaraj Round, Thrissur, where pulikali teams from all over the district participate to display their skills. This grand celebration attracts thousands of people to Thrissur city. Pulikali is also performed during various other festive seasons on a smaller scale.
Pulikali was started over 200 years back. During the time of Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran, the Maharaja of Cochin, the first pulikali was introduced by him as an entertaining folk art. He wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that involved the wild nature.
Eventually the Muslim soldiers of the British army stationed in the army cantonment in Thrissur somehow started celebrating pulikali with great fervor. Through their steps, body painting and body language they enacted tiger being stalked by a hunter. They display steps resembling that of the tiger to the rhythmic beat of drums. The mood is such that, the spectators knowingly or unknowingly sway their body to join the rhythm displayed by the tigers.
In recent times changes have occurred in the adornment of pulikali dancers. In olden days the kind of elaborate marks used today were not painted on to the body. They would paint the whole body, including the face. Presently cosmetic teeth, readymade masks, artificial tongues, beard and moustaches are worn by the participants along with elaborate paintings on their bodies. The tigers wear a broad belt with jingles around their waist to add to the rhythm when they dance. In Thrissur it has now become a very popular social event with a huge participation from spectators.
The outstanding feature of this folk art is the brilliantly colored appearance of the performers.
A group of us went to see this year’s pulikali at Thrissur. Puli painting starts very early in the morning. There are different teams of puikali artists that compete to get recognition at the end of the day. These teams gather at schools and community centers where large spaces are available for their elaborate preparation. We went to a couple of such venues not too far from the Thrissur temple circle compound to watch this fascinating event. Along with us there were many other spectators, press, tourists and photographers as well. Many highly talented artists specializing in body painting gets a chance to show their skill. As the first step, dancers’ shave- off the hair from their body, and then a base coat of paint is applied. While we were taking a look around, we were rather amused to see that all pulis share a common characteristic. Their huge pot belly! It is these huge belly shapes which become a perfect canvas for artists to paint startling puli faces. All of a sudden we noticed one thin looking puli, quite different from the rest of them. Our local friend introduced us to him. He was in the process of getting ready. Looked like he had just been given the base coat of paint. He started talking softly, and in a humble manner. His name is Chathunny. Now 74 years of age, this is his 58thconsecutive participation in pulikali. Obviously the oldest and most experienced puli in Thrissur. Chathunny had a fixed smile on his face and sparking eyes bubbling with enthusiasm. Even at 74, he looked like a race horse all ready to go. I thought to myself; “what dedication; and what an honor to meet such a puli!”We only had a brief chat with him as he was busy getting painted on. Meantime he found time to explain to us about the changes and advancements in all areas of this folk art from the time he was a boy. In olden days the numbers of pulis were less and the body painting was much simpler. A special meticulously mixed combination of a tempera color base called ‘Guerilla Powder’ with varnish or enamel is used to make the paint now. There is a tremendous amount of patience and skill involved in such mixing of body paint. Many years of experience are required for paint mixing and preparation. Lately they even use fluorescent colors which become highly dazzling under sunlight. It takes about 2 to 3 hours of time for the first coat of paint to dry. The second coat of painting is the actual art; stripes, dots, strokes and detailed paintings of the puli face. The entire process takes at least 5 to 7 hours. This is why the preparations need to start very early in the morning.
Various teams perform this folk art in Thrissur. The competitive team spirit adds the extra excitement and enthusiasm to Pulikali. This time there were a total of 6 teams. They came from places like Mylippadam, Chembookavu, Kottappuram, Poomkunnam and Viyoor. Each team is composed of 51 people. There are also 5 different variations in pulis based on the way they are depicted.
Each team makes a great big procession through the street following a float decorated extravagantly and dramatically; based on a chosen religious theme. Finally they reach the Swaraj round where they perform individually. Judges evaluate each team’s performance during the entire day. Points are added up to choose the final winners. At the end of the celebration cash prizes and trophies are awarded in the presence of a huge cheering crowd. Points awarded are based on criteria like Pulivesham (puli costume/presentation), Pulikkali (puli performance), Pulikotte (the rhythmic music and drum beats) and Achadackkam (discipline & composure during the entire day).
A few of us in our group that attended this year’s Pulikali for the first time were pleasantly surprised. I am one of them. It had more or less the same excitement as a snake boat race in Kerala. It is an experience that is not likely to be forgotten.