Nothing could be more out of place than celebrating Onam without a happy and colourful gathering of people. And no one would have felt more let down than the Pulikali enthusiasts of Thrissur.
The traditional folk art of Thrissur is being cancelled for the second time in a row, though with the urgent objective to contain the spread of COVID-19. The event, which usually attracts countless people even from outside the country, defined Onam the way the reindeer and sleigh symbolised Christmas. Pulikali artists, their entire body painted in fierce resplendent tiger colours and grooving to the customary ‘chembada thalam’( traditional beat played during Pulikali), were a real feast to art lovers. The input restrictions of Covid-19 and the associated economic distress now has spread the shadow of a greater doom on the art form: extinction.
Expensive body art
With its wild charm and unique style, this art itself got marked on the tourist map of the country very early. Pulikali, which has a history of 200 years, is said to have been introduced by the then Cochin ruler, Maharaja Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran. Earlier, the art was performed by trained artists with peculiar body movements and was a much simpler event. Later as a step to promote tourism, Thrissur Corporation initiated a competition between different Pulikali troops (Deshams). This turned the whole event into an expensive affair.
“Each troop has to spend up to Rs 10-12 lakhs to conduct the event. We only get one lakh from the corporation and rest is amassed through crowdfunding. The authorities were forced to cancel the event this year and last due to the pandemic. But we do not think that we can host the event in the coming years as well due to the torn economy. It is not possible to find such a huge amount of money” says Adv Baby P Antony Pulikali, the former coordination committee president.
“We have sent several requests to the tourism department and government earlier itself to take over the event and to support the artists but no welcoming step has been made so far. Though the event is proclaimed to be a tourist attraction, the recognition received from the government is comparatively low,” adds Adv Baby.
Similar is the worry of Unnikrishnan, a Pulikali artist of the Ayyanthol group. He says “We are putting in a lot of effort. For us, Pulikali is the spirit of Onam, but sometimes we feel that we don't get the recognition we deserve. The veteran Pulikali artist Chathunni Ashan who passed away last year performed the art for more than 60 years, even he was not given any official awards or recognition.”
Tigers and social distancing
The apathy of the authorities and the huge cost of putting up a Pulikali performance are holding back the new generation from showing the necessary interest in the art form.
Also, for pulikali artists, the crowd is their fuel. It is the roar of the crowd that heightens their performance. But with the pandemic raging, and the scare it has generated expected to persist for years to come, it is feared the 'tigers' would be kept away from the crowds for an uncomfortably long time. This is heartbreaking for the artists. “We are sadder that we cannot perform before the people. The site of Swaraj round filled with roaring tigers is the best thing I have in my life.” says artist Unnikrishnan.
Season of struggle
“Earlier this was a season of hope for artists like me. This was the main source of my income. I used to earn up to Rs 1 lakh per month during the season of Onam. Now, for the past two years I am struggling to make ends meet. Survival has become difficult, it is hard to meet even our basic needs, including children's education expenses. Many artists like me are the sole breadwinners of the family and we are scouting for other ways of income and sometimes we fail miserably” says Pulikali Artist Shakeer.
There are many like Shakeer who are desperately searching for a viable means of income. Some of them are going for brick construction and others for loading and unloading jobs. Most of them ending up in these jobs are new in the field and they find it difficult to get offers as they are not recognised.
Saji Kumar, owner of Nandanam stores, Thrissur, who rents out the materials for the event also has a story of loss, “This was the time I used to earn the most income in a year. Now I have nothing to look up to. I have no idea what to do with the stock in my shop as I have to spend a large amount on maintenance and pay rent for the shop.”
In search of new platforms
Nonetheless, Pulikali is a habit that just cannot be shaken off. Like many other art forms which stepped into virtual platforms to combat COVID restrictions, Pulikali is also embracing technology. Ayanthol troop which live-telecasted Pulikali last year through Facebook is gearing up to perform the art in an enhanced way this time as well, through the virtual platforms.
“The team will consist of 6 members and they will perform together in a particular place. Pulikali is unavoidable for us and we will utilise the available technologies to enhance the reach of the folk art,” says Kannan Parambath secretary Ayanthol Desham.
“All the Covid-19 protocols will be maintained, all our members are inoculated and no crowd is allowed,” adds Kannan.
Recognising the efforts, Facebook has taken their last virtual performance into an advertisement video under #roaringonam. Besides this, the team got the opportunity to perform at Dar es Salam as a part of promoting tourism.
The efforts these artists take to conserve the art is commendable but such passionate individual efforts will amount to nothing without official backing.