September 12, 2011

Pilivesha (Tiger Dance)

Having lived in the coastal region of South Canara or the "Tulunadu", we were exposed to a lot of folk dances and rituals like Yakshagana, Bhoota Kola (spirit worship), Naga Mandala (snake worship) during our growing up years. But the one that fascinated me the most while I was a child  and still does is the Pili Vesha or the Tiger dance.

In the local Tulu language Pili means Tiger. Pili vesha is an unique form of folk dance in South Canara that mesmerizes everyone who watches it. This is usually performed in Udupi during Krishna Janmastami and Ganesh Chaturthi. In the nearby city of Mangalore it is also performed during Dussera. Pili vesha consists of a troupe of 10-20 'pilis' and they go house to house dancing to a typical rhythm of deafening drum beats. When I was a kid I used to be petrified of the pilis and when even the faintest sound of the drum beats (which you could hear from miles away) used to send me to my hiding place under the cot, behind cupboards or the toilet! As I grew older, I used to somehow try and muster the courage to watch them dance in our compound or many times inside our home. Once they left our home, we would follow the pilis and continue to watch them perform in all the shops and homes on our street and the drum beats would reverberate in our ears the whole day long.

During the dance, the artists perform many heroic acts which depicts the power of a tiger. Apparently 'killing sheep' was one of the famous acts performed although I have never seen it myself. A skillful tiger dancer is expected to kill a sheep, which means the artist holds the sheep by his teeth, toss it in the air and throw it away. The sheep is not actually killed and it is only a ritual. Many such acts are performed, some of the popular being picking the note with his mouth by bending backwards, mother and cubs, etc. A performance with many special acts was always put up for my grand mom, who would then generously pay them. Of course, the pilis would refuse to leave the first time they were paid and would then continue to dance as long as the money kept flowing and they were satisfied with what was given.

The Pili vesha and all the other veshas (there were many other costume dances or individuals dressed as mythological characters who would keep coming through the day) were the highlight of all festivals back then. We used to be up early in the morning and grand mom would give us a bag full of money (coins and small change) and it was our responsibility to pay all the veshas that come during the day. All except the pili vesha - this she would pay herself :) Unfortunately, this entire tradition of vesha is dying now. and these days we hardly see any vesha. We are lucky if we manage to see even one pili vesha. The main reason for the decline or the disinterest in performing the vesha is the expense incurred by the troupes for the elaborate painting and the musicians. This year the Udupi Mutt Swamijis sponsored the entire cost of the painting and the musicians in order to encourage the troupe and also to keep the tradition alive. I hope this never disappears and our kids can enjoy it the same way as we did.

This year we happened to be at Malpe during Ganesh Chaturthi and Mom was invited to watch the starting performing of  a 21 group pili (usually at a temple). I very excitedly tagged along taking Adi with me. He was a wee bit scared but enjoyed the performance specially the 3 cubs :). I am glad I went as it brought back lot of happy childhood memories and the drum beats reverberated all day long - just like old times.


Aparna said...

Wow Poornima, this was quite a revelation for me - even though a South Indian I have never seen this performance up close, you've really brought it out in detail with your descriptions and photos :) !
What elaborate costumes, especially the painted faces - must be amazing in person. I can imagine why as a child you would be scared of something like this!

poornima said...

ha ha Aparna...yes, we were quite scared of them as kids..apart from the paint they would also make loud roaring sounds that would make us piss in our pants!! :) the painting process itself is quite painful...takes quite a few hours to paint the entire body and they need to stand all the while...also the paint burns their body a lot....