Celebrating ‘Fun and Frolic of the Tigers’ with Pulikali

A recreational folk art from the state of Kerala, Pulikali came into origin in 1886 on the fourth Onam day in the month of Chingam. Over the years, this festival has become synonymous with the harvest festival of Onam wherein colourful artists dressed as tigers entertain people through a typical recreational folk art dance…

WORDS: SANGEETA S

PULIKALI a tiger dance of Kerala is performed by trained artists to entertain people on the occasion of Onam which is an annual harvest festival celebrated in Kerala. It is a colorful recreational folk art where artists dance wildly and mimic hunting moves to the beat of drums. The famous folk art is performed in different parts of Kerala but mostly performed in Thrissur district. Literal meaning of Pulikali is the ‘play of the tigers’ hence the performance revolves around the theme of tiger hunting.

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It is a dance where young and old both participate with equal enthusiasm. Though the dance is performed mostly by men but lately few women and children also are a part of the group. It is fun to watch few female and child leopards too amongst the group. The entire scene looks very colourful and vibrant with artists wearing masks of leopard face and body painted in black and yellow. The colourful appearances of the artists make the whole atmosphere more vibrant. However getting the colourful appearance is not easy; it requires lot of patience and time. The dancers clean their body of all hair and then apply the base coat which takes 2-3 hours to dry before the second coat can be applied. The painstaking process can take up to 7 hours before the artists get ready. Leopard faces are also drawn on bellies and men with potbellies shake it and dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and Thakil. The performance mostly revolves around the theme of tiger hunting.
This folk art is mostly performed on the fourth day of Onam and the best place to watch this show is at Thrissur where thousands of people gather just to watch and enjoy the lovely show.

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It is wonderful watching humans in the guise of tigers roaming in the streets. Children simply love the show as scenes of tiger hunting are beautifully depicted by the artists. Many troupes from all over the state assemble in Thrissur to give their performance. Pulikali is not just restricted to Onam, it is performed during other festive seasons too.
The origin of Pulikali dates back to over 200 years when Maharaja Ramavarma wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that reflected the wild and macho spirit of the force. It is worth noting the efforts made to preserve this 200- year old art by the artists of the state. Earlier masks were not used; instead the artists would paint their bodies and faces to give the tiger effect. But now, readymade masks, cosmetic teeth, tongues, beards and mustaches are used by the participants along with the paint on their bodies. Over the years the dance has become very popular and people come forward in great numbers to participate and enjoy the dance. The Pulikkali Co-ordination Committee, a unified council of Pulikkali groups formed in 2004 to preserve and propagate the art in all its true hues and tones makes great efforts in organizing the event and keeping the tradition alive.