The city of Thrissur in Kerala has an unusual demand every summer: pot-bellied men. The bigger the belly, the better it is. While the world might find this requirement strange, for the people of Kerala, there’s nothing unusual about it. For pot-bellied men, disguised as tigers, dancing at Swaraj Round during the harvest festival of Onam, has been a common sight for at least 200 years.
I came across the “tiger” men last summer. I was being “tourist-ey” in Thrissur, popularly called the “cultural capital” of Kerala. The city was in a festive mood, Onam was around the corner and celebrations had already begun. As most of the city proceeded to gather around the many by-lanes surrounding Swaraj Round, I followed suit. It was time for the Play of the Tigers, or Puli Kali. Also known as the Kuduvaklai dance, Puli Kali is a tradition which dates back to two centuries ago. It highlights the ritual of tiger hunting prevalent in the hills of the Western Ghats and the forests surrounding it.
As I reached the square, I noticed a large clearing where a group of men stood, painted from top to toe in bright shades of yellow and black. They had tails, they had claws, they had masked faces which scared the living daylights out of me. The tiger-men also had bellies — big, rotund ones — on which were drawn the faces of tigers, replete with stripes, rosettes, whiskers and fangs.
And slowly to the sounds of the rustic drumbeats, the “tigers” began to dance. A belly dance like no other, a feat so mesmerising I doubt I have seen anything like it since. As the dancers rhythmically moved their stomach muscles, the tigers on their torsos appeared to “roar”. On some bellies, there were lions, and on others there were leopards — growling, panting and rolling their eyes, all at once.
According to legend, Puli Kali came into being when the King of Thrissur, Maharaja Rama Verma decided to celebrate the strength and triumph of his soldiers through a dance that reflected the macho spirit of the force. The dance, then known as Puliketikali, later evolved into its present form.
In olden days, when the art first started, masks were never used by the dancers. Today, however, it’s a different story. From masks to cosmetic teeth to tongues, beards and moustaches, Puli Kali artistes are decked up from head to foot. They also wear a broad belt with jingles around their waist.
In the midst of the thick crowd, I strike up a conversation with a local. He tells me that he used to be a “tiger dancer” at one point in his life. According to the old gentleman, preparations for Puli Kali takes several hours, and the make-up starts in the wee hours of the morning. He would have to remove all hair from the body, after which a coat of paint (made of tempera and varnish) was applied. This was the base coat, which took a couple of hours to dry. Another coat of paint is applied thereafter, and this time the artist would add the intricate elements to the design. “It’s important to get the design just right,” the man tells me, “There are several active Puli Kali teams in Thrissur, and each team guards its own secrets (whether they are about the kinds of patterns or dance moves) with loyalty. It’s tradition”
By late afternoon, the Puli Kali groups or ‘sangams’ are still dancing, pouncing and shaking their bellies. The crowd, at least 2,000 strong now, has people from neighbouring districts like Kannur, to neighbouring countries like Dubai. My new friend tells me that these days, many sangams are finding it hard to keep up with the rising costs of preparing for a Puli Kali dance. Sponsors are hard to come by, and costs often exceed the collections the groups make. I express concern, asking him if he thinks this endangers the art form in any way. “Like the tiger, the art of Puli Kali is too strong to die out so easily. But we must do our best to protect and support it,” he says.
As the sangams parade around through the main roads of the town, I feel very tired but I continue to follow the tigers, who perform till late evening. My way of showing support.