Pulikali, or tiger dance is colorful procession that takes place on the fourth day of Kerala’s Onam festival. in Thrissur, considered by many the cultural capital of the state, huge numbers gather to watch the dance. There are nearly twenty local groups that put floats sponsored by the residents of their neighbourhoods. Each group consisits of thirty to forty men with tiger faces painted on their bellies.
The dancers shave their bodies early in the morning to prepare for the event. Layers of paint are applied to strenghten the colors of tiger faces. While each coat dries the dancer must wait. While each coat of paint dries, the dancer must hold out his arms so that they don’t end up stuck to his body. The painting takes till 3 pm, after which the men put on their masks and costumes and join in a warm up dance.
It’s not just the tigers that are featured. Black panthers, lions, cheetahs and leopards are also represented. The sponsors from each neighborhood pay Rs 750 to the dancer, the more experienced dancer gets more payment but but the determining factor is the size of the tummy. In earlier days, dancers simply painted stripes or spots on their bodies and wore tiger masks.
The tiger dance is believed to be originated among the Muslims, who indeed still perform a similar dance during Muharram, the dancers going from house to house. In earlier times the hunting theme was more prominent. Dancers would enact the drama of a tiger preying on a goat, or tiger being hunted by men. For the Thrissur performance, each group of dancers is accompanied by a float, which often raise the issue like perils of globalization or stressed out out elephants running amok during festivals.
The procession takes about five hours, during which the tigers dance continuously to the beat of the chenda and other percussion instruments, egged on by the crowds that surge around them. The dance is simple: take three steps forward, jiggle the belly, take three steps back and jump. But the overall effect is mesmerizing. The shifting stomach muscles create the illusion of changing expressions of the tiger faces. To see this crowd is overjoyed.