Believed to have originated almost 200 years ago, Pulikkali was brought to Kerala by Tamil-speaking Muslims who performed the dance for Muharram. But the current version of Pulikkali, with steps that mime hunting moves and tactics, has few takers.

Growling and prancing to the wild rhythms of percussion, “tigers” roam the streets of Thrissur, a central Kerala city, as thousands of onlookers cheer on. Pulikkali (tiger dance) is performed on the fourth day of Onam, as part of the festival of harvest every year.

The pantomime-cum-parade dance speaks of a rich tradition and culture that has its roots in the peaceful cohabitation of many religious communities in Kerala. But the spectacular demonstration of colour, sound and movements of Pulikkali say little of the painstaking efforts of the performers before they take to the streets. Preparations for Pulikkali start months before the event. The organising committees hunt for potbellied men as the tiger faces can be drawn well on a rotund middle. Painting the body is an arduous process that deprives both the painter and the performer of sleep for at least two days. The whole body of the performer is shorn of hair as the painting attains perfection only on smooth skin.

The paint is made by grinding colour tempera powders into a fine paste into which fluorescent colours are added. Tempera powders are powder pigments made from glutinous materials. Copal varnish is mixed with the paste and then applied to the body. The paint can be washed off only by first applying kerosene.

Construction worker Chathunni, at 72 years, is the oldest Pulikkali performer in Thrissur. He has been donning the tiger mask for the past 56 years. He sees the whole process as tortuous, but rewarding when people cheer. Jose Kachappilly, an artist who has drawn tiger faces on innumerable tummies for the last 36 years, feels the same.

The performers are paid according to the size of their tummies — from Rs.1,000 to 5,000 per person. But over the years, the declining number of Pulikkali teams and performers has become a cause of concern. There used to be around 15 teams with at least 50-60 performers in each team. The number has come down to just six teams this year, with 40 performers in each team. Santhosh, a regular performer, says that the teams face acute financial crisis as each Pulikkali event requires about Rs. 2 to 4 lakh for its smooth functioning, depending on the number of performers.

Veteran Chathunni pipes in that the major share of the expense is met through donations by art lovers and collections from houses and shops. Ardent Pulikkali fans fear that the tradition, gradually, may become just a memory with dwindling enthusiasts and lack of support.