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Pulikkali

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Pulikkali (meaning tiger dance) is performed by men on the streets on the fourth Onam day. Hundreds of men and children wearing tiger-like masks and painted body will dance according to various rhythms in Thrissur as part of Onam festival.Pulikkali is perhaps the only folk art that involves painting of the body on such a large scale. Pulikkali is one of the few animal mimetic dances of primordial origin that has survived the onslaught of civilisation. It is perhaps the only folk art, which involves painting on the body at such a large level. Even in Kerala, Thrissur is the only place where such a festival is held on an elaborate scale during Onam.

According to folklorists, the play in Thrissur is almost a century old. The Tamil speaking Muslims originally introduced it as part of the Moharram festivities. The legend of Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, is said to have close links to the performance. Ali was a great warrior and the Islamic faith portrays him as the guardian angel of the Almighty, possessing the strength of a tiger.

Gradually the Muslim population lost interest in the play. Communities of Konars and Chettiars of Tamil origin took it up as they were used to the "puliyattam", the Tamil version held during Pongal.

The choreography of Pulikkali is essentially that of miming a tiger that moves on its hind legs. But the influence of Kalaripayattu, Kerala's martial art, can be clearly seen. The artistes accomplish acrobatic feats on two rods supported by men, often climbing bamboo poles imitating the movements of tiger. All movements of the hands and the body are in perfect unison with the rhythmic accompaniment. In the past there were artistes who were carried away during the performance. Instances of miming a bloodthirsty animal were not rare. There were performers who could lift a full-grown goat by biting it on the neck. Such cruel practices died out later.

Painting the artiste is an awesome job. It takes almost a whole night to complete. The body is clean-shaven and tempera powder mixed with varnish is applied as first coat. Professional painters then draw the designs of the various animals on the body.

Though a non-ritualistic art form, a sense of tradition is seen during the preparations and performances. Seldom does the painting begin without lighting a traditional lamp. The artistes invoke the blessings of their "creator" — the painter. A visit to the nearby temple is a must before the play starts.

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