In the midst of lively drumming and an explosion of colours, history was rewritten in the centre of Thrissur. Women challenged long-standing traditions and demonstrated their unbeatable presence in the famous Pulikali festival. Thara, a labourer who works for daily wages in Thalikkulam, played a significant part in this momentous move towards gender equality.
Thara’s road towards becoming one of the celebrated tiger performers was far from simple. Her enthusiasm for Pulikali, a visual spectacular associated with Kerala’s Onam festival, had been rejected by numerous Deshams, the event’s traditional administrators. Thara, unfazed, approached the district collector, determined to make her dream a reality.
She expressed her deep love for Pulikali, recalling how she had been drawn by the lovely costumes, booming music, and the breathtaking and rhythmic dance of the tigers since childhood. Thara’s journey has been filled with difficulties; in 2017, ladies performed as tigers for the first time in Thrissur Pulikali, only to have the event halted the following year due to the devastating floods. Despite her excitement, Thara encountered opposition from Pulikali organisers who hesitated to include women in 2019.
Thara’s supporters, though, were her drive and perseverance. She got her chance to shine as a tiger for Viyyur Desham in 2019. The following year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a cloud over the festivities, and Thara’s expectations looked shattered once more.
Undaunted, she approached the organisers of various Deshams for the 2023 festival, but they were hesitant to include her. Thara decided to make a direct plea to the Thrissur district collector at this point. The collector took her request into account and quickly intervened and helped Thara join the Sitaram Mill Pulikali squad.
Thara, a mother of three children, was not alone in her historic quest. Nimisha Bijo, a Malayalam actress whom another Desham had denied before finding acceptance with the Sitaram Mill crew, joined her. Nimisha’s love for Pulikali was unwavering, as was the desire to participate in the event.
Thara and Nimisha expressed confidence in their ability to protect themselves during the event. They stressed that they didn’t need protection but rather respect from their male peers. This stance marked a profound cultural shift, reinforcing the women’s efforts to be treated as equals in every way.
Sitaram Mill Desham, which reappeared after an 11-year absence, launched a breakthrough initiative by supplying chappals to the tiger performers. The event was traditionally held barefoot. Artist Thottappath Prasad designed the custom-made chappals, which were painted to match the tiger costumes, providing a new depth to the age-old ritual.
The inclusion of women and the addition of chappals for tigers in the Sitaram Mill Desham marked an important juncture in the history of Thrissur’s Pulikali festival. Thara, Nimisha, and their other performers displayed not just an uncompromising attitude but also an unwavering determination to redefine the festival’s narrative, highlighting that gender should never impede pursuing one’s passions and desires.