The 10-day harvest festival, Onam, celebrated by Malayalis worldwide is right around the corner. We’re all excited for the much-needed sadya and payasam break. In this article, however, I’ll be talking Puli Kali and the history behind the play of the tiger.
Puli Kali is performed on the fourth day of Onam and is celebrated in grandeur in the Swaraj Ground in the Thrissur district of Kerala. It’s a form of folk art where artists paint their bodies with tiger strips and dance to the beats of thakil, udukku and chenda. Their dance represents the movements of a tiger and they portray it through their expressions, shaking off their pot bellies, and body language.
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People believe that Mahabali is as strong and powerful as a tiger. Puli kali, as such, is a tribute to the legend that he is. Puli Kali is believed to have been introduced 200 years ago by King Maharaja Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin, to celebrate the wild spirit of the festival.
Puli Kali artists have to shave their body hair and present themselves in front of an experienced painter. The painter goes on to draw a tiger on the body using oil paint. In order to make the artwork vibrant, two coats of paint are applied and it takes a whole day to paint a person’s body.
The art form was originally performed by men. But, in 2016, for the first time ever, we saw the participation of women, breaking conventional gender barriers.