Dasara brought with it the age-old tradition of the pili vesha in coastal Karnataka, of course, now more influenced by reality dance shows!
Perhaps it is the isolation provided by the string of mountains and dense forests that surround it, or the mythologies that have developed from local epics, but what is certain is that festivities in south coastal Karnataka are filled with unique traditions. So, while Mangalore followed the rest of the country in turning out at temples during the Dasara season, it also threw up ‘pili vesha’ or ‘huli vesha’. Set to the resonating ‘thaase’ (traditional drum), figures painted as ‘pili’ (Tulu word for tiger/huli in Kannada) were a common sight outside homes and on roads. Completely painted in yellow and brown stripes from head to toe, nearly 20 professional troupes, all mimicking tigers, went door-to-door.
Resembling less of a dance and more like an acrobatics routine, the audience was treated to reverse jumps, flips, somersaults and acrobatics. “Traditionally, pili-vesha has been performed as a tribute to the tiger, which was seen as the vehicle of many gods and goddesses,” says folklorist Navaneeth Shetty Kadri. There were extremes in this impersonation of the tiger that have since died down. Even until a decade ago, killing sheep during the act, flipping the carcass over was a routine (and a crowd puller) in these acts. “A skilful ‘tiger’ dancer was expected to kill a sheep by tossing it in the air and then throw it using his teeth…today, the sheep has been replaced with a heavy bag of rice,” says Kadri. Over the years, the performance has become more acrobatic, with an emphasis on the agility of the stunts. For example, this year the ‘Sharadha Huli’ troupe in Surathkal included among its acts jumping backwards from buses, buildings among others. Another influence now is dance reality shows, with traditional moves being replaced with modern break dance. “Pili-vesha has become commercial now. It looks like a circus where you see lot of stunts and fire play,” believes Kadri.
Kishore Kumar, fresh of his triumph at a popular, televised dance reality show, attributes his victory to his childhood pili vesha performances! “I have incorporated the flips and stunts that I had used in these performances as a child, in my dance now.” Whatever the changes, the popularity of the performances has transcended communities. For both Mohammed Aajim of Gurupura and Mangalore University student Jane D’Souza, the stunts and flips are eagerly looked forward to.