Sunday, 30 July 2017

Tiger Dance of India

 By Felix Francis [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
 A pulikkali procession during Onam in Thrissur City

India is a land of varied cultures and traditions. It is said that, there is no better way to explore the vast cultural landscape of India than through its folk dance and song. Folk dances are performed to express joy and happiness. Some are performed for festivals and some to celebrate the arrival of seasons. On most occasions, the dancers sing themselves, while being accompanied by artists on the instruments. Many of such traditional folk dances have emerged centuries ago and gradually evolved in form. One such majestic folk dance is ‘Tiger Dance of India’. It is performed in Indian state of Odisha and southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But it is known by different names and is performed at different occasions. Let’s dance through this folk dance of India.


Tamil Nadu is known for its ancient cultural heritage. It is worth mentioning that Tamil language, one of the official language of India, is one of the oldest language in the world still in use. The state of Tamil Nadu is home to many spectacular cultural activities. Folk dances form an integral part of these activities. And ‘Puliyattam’ is one of them.

Puliyattam is considered a very ancient folk art dance of Tamil Nadu dating back centuries ago.  Old Tamil literature has recorded version of Puliyattam dance. In Tamil, ‘Puli’ means tiger and ‘attam’ means dance. Hence the word ‘Puliyattam’ literally translates to ‘Tiger Dance’. Puliyattam is performed mainly in the districts of Madurai, Ramanathapuram and Tirunelveli. The Puliyattam is performed usually at village festivals. It is a group dance and is mainly performed on the occasion of Onam and Thiruvathira.

This vigorous and euphoric folk dance imitates the graceful movement of the majestic and awe-inspiring tiger. Dance form usually comprises a troupe of 6 male performers imitating the movements of the majestic, predatory tiger. Their bodies are painted by the painstaking efforts of local artists in vibrant yellow and black to resemble that of a tiger. Usually ferocious eyes are painted on chest and roaring mouth of tiger is painted on abdomen area (belly). Once the painting is done all over the body, then the head gear or mask of the tiger with ferocious eyes and feline teeth is all fixed. There is also a false, long tail that is fixed on the backs of the dancers. With this the complete tiger dressing is complete and they are ready for the Puliyaattam.

The thunderous roars of drums beating wildly along with several local instruments reproduce the snarls of the regal predators and complete the picture. Sometimes to incorporate a touch of reality, a goat is tied to a nearby pole and the pouncing movement of tiger is vividly enacted by Puliyattam dancer. Apart from the tiger the dancers are often adorned in the beautiful spots of a leopard or the eerie dark shades of a black panther.
The art nowadays is slowly declining in Tamil Nadu but is still performed in Kerala and Karanataka. In Kerala it is called Pulikali.

By Adarsh Padmanabhan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Pulikali performers


The Indian state of Kerala, ‘Gods own country’, is one of the popular tourist destinations in the country. Like Puliyattam, Pulikali is performed in Kerala with great pomp and enthusiasm. In Malayalam (the native language of Kerala), ‘Puli’ means tiger/leopard and ‘kali’ means play. It literally mean, 'play of the tigers' and hence the performance revolves around the theme of tiger hunting.

Pulikali is performed by trained artists to entertain people on the occasion of Onam , an annual harvest festival, celebrated mainly in the Indian state of Kerala. Onam falls in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, which in Gregorian calendar overlaps with August–September. This recreational folk art is said to be 200 years old art. Then Maharaja of Cochin, Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran is said to have introduced the folk art, who wanted to celebrate Onam with a dance that reflected the wild and macho spirit of the force.

Pulikali, also called Kaduvaakali, is mainly practiced in Thrissur (Trichur) and Palghat districts of Kerala. The best place to watch Pulikali is at Thekkinkadu Maidan in the center of Thrichur town.

On the fourth day of Onam (Naalam Onam), performers painted like tigers in bright yellow, red, and black dance to the beats of instruments like Udukku and Thakil. The performers also wear a broad belt with jingles around their waist. With the beatings of drums and in the midst of vigorously energetic music, the dancers sway their audience with their magnificent display of tiger’s movements. Pulikali troupes from all over the district assemble to display their skills. The district authorities have brought in certain rules about the style and duration of the play. Award of prizes to the best team has evoked a spirit of healthy competition.

By Premkudva (Own work) [GFDL</a> or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Hulivesha performers on their way to the Mangalore Dasara procession


Another such ‘Tiger dance’ is performed in neighbouring State of Karnataka. Karnataka is called the ‘Ghandada Gudi’ in kannada (the native language of Karnataka), which literally means ‘the land of sandalwood’. Karnataka is known for rich heritage and culture. Mainly Tulu Nadu region of Karnataka performs ‘Tiger dance’. It is called Pilivesha in Tulu and Hulivesha in kannada.

Hulivēṣa is performed during Navratri to honour the goddess Sharada - an aspect of Goddess Saraswati whose favoured animal is the tiger. Mangalore Dasara is one of the festivals during which large number of enthusiasts participate in this ritual. It is also performed during the Krishna Janmashtami/Mosarukudike and Ganesha Chaturthi at Mangalore, Udupi, Moodabidri many other places in Tulu Nadu. 

Generally young males around five to ten members, paint themselves with tiger, leopard or cheetah motifs on bare body and face (nowadays mask made of fake fur is much preferred). Dancers wear just shorts which has a tiger-skin motifs and a tail is worn to complete the ensemble.

The painting of the body is a long and laborious process that often starts early in the morning. Yellow and white colours are painted first and left to dry for couple of hour. After that black stripes are painted and then the last bits of touching up. At late afternoon, they go to pray at the temple, before their dance begins. During Navratri, the dancers dance on tune of drummers accompanying them on the streets of their towns. They perform their dance near residential areas, shops and road sides, and collect some money for their performance. Almost all of them perform for the Sharada procession organized by various temple such as Mangaladevi, Gokarnanatheshwara and Venkatramana temple till the last day of Navratri.


Baagh Naach, a similar dance form is also performed in the Indian state of Odisha. The Indian state of Odisha is regarded as a land of myriad marvels. Odisha has a rich cultural heritage, which is a harmonious blending of art, religion and philosophy. With time, many unique dance forms have evolved in different regions of Odisha. One of which is Baagh Naach.

Baagh Naach or Tiger Dance is performed in Binka, Sonepur of Subarnapur district and in some parts of Ganjam district in Odisha. This spectacular animal mask dances is also performed in Berhampur during the Thakurani Jatra when the idols are taken out on the streets. Baagh Naach is performed during the Hindu month of Chaitra (March–April), on religious festivals or special occasions in the village or the tribe.

Baagh Naach is basically done by the males and they dress and makeup themselves in most expressive ways. The dancer paints his bare body with yellow and black stripes, like that of a tiger and attach a suitable tail that further enhance its look. One or more dancers move from house to house and after the crowd gathers the dance begins. The dancers are accompanied by a drummer and a bell player who provides the music. The dance steps involve acrobatic movements by the dancers. The steps and movements of the dance are fast and vigorous and hence it asks for enthusiasm and energy level on the part of the dancer. The artists also make hissing sounds resembling that of the feline creature to attract mass audiences.

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