Suresh Kumar OG of S S Pulikkali, an organisation that manages tiger dances, and his team are preparing for September 1. They would perform the pulikkali, an annual event held as part of Onam revelry in Thrissur.
On the fourth day of Onam celebrations, as per tradition, hundreds of men painted in tiger and leopard patterns perform the pulikkali (dance of the tigers) at Swaraj Grounds in Thrissur. Crowds gather to watch the rambunctious “tigers” dance to the beats of the chenda as they build up to a crescendo.
“It is our passion and we wait for the Onam season to compete with the rest of the ‘tigers’ in town,” says Suresh. “We have 51 tigers this year – six to seven cubs and the oldest being 65-year-old Suresh, who has donned the tiger costume for years now,” says Suresh, who plays the chenda for the team in addition to managing it.
Though COVID-19 took the sheen off the festivities for a couple of years, it is slowly regaining its past glory, he adds. “There was a time when we used to have tigers from 18 to 20 regions in Thrissur, now it has shrunk to five. This year, tigers from five regions – Ayyanthole, Kanattukara, Poonkunnam, Viyyur and Sakthan Thampuran Nagar (the region around Sakthan Thampuran bus stand) — will compete,” he adds. Prizes are given to the best performers. The team of tigers from S S Pulikkali won the first prize last year, says Suresh.
A tradition that is believed to be over 200 years old, the pulikkali has evolved with time. One year even had a team of women tigers participating. Preparations begin early on in the day when the men get their bodies painted. “One does not need any special training to be able to do the tiger dance. It is just that one should be able to groove to the beats. Then there are unique steps. Anyone in Thrissur, who has watched Pulikkali, would be able to dance,” says Suresh.
Staging a pulikkali performance has become an expensive affair now, he adds. “It comes up to over ₹10 lakh. “The dancers demand up to ₹8,000 and the percussionists up to ₹3,000. We need to pay for the vehicle (used for the float) not to mention the expenses involved for the makeup,” says Suresh. But rising costs have not deterred the team from participating, he adds. S S Pulikkali also travels to Bengaluru, Mumbai and other cities for programmes.
The Onam pulikkali will be held in Thrissur on September 1 at 4pm.