Come the season of rains, when agriculture activities stop completely, it is Aati Kalenja who roams around the settlements in Tulu Nadu expunging the evils that surrounds.
With haldi-painted face, eyebrows, lips, and eyes accentuated with black liner; adorned in a costume made of coconut tree palms, a head cover made up of areca leaves that jut upwards adding height to the spirit, anklets that ring with every step, and most distinctly, carrying a parasol made of leaves that is twirled continuously, the image of “Aati Kalenja” makes for a spectacular viewing.
The spirit makes its way to houses of farmers, performing rituals that “rid” evils of disease, crop loss, and sadness, and in return is offered rice, coconuts, vegetables, and farm produce.
“Aati Kalenja, is an agricultural dance, that can trace its roots to when agriculture itself started in Tulu Nadu. During June and July, the farmer stops agricultural activities. So, the spirit comes to protect the land, and to bless the land with good yield for the next season,” said K. Abhay Kumar, Chairperson of Department of Kannada, Mangalore University.
Moreover, he added, with the rainy season being conducive for the spread of diseases, Aati Kalenja, who acts as a traditional healer, also dispenses medicinal herbs to counter these illnesses.
The dance is mainly followed by the Nalike community that is spread over Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, and Kasargod districts, and Belthangady Mogeras. The difference in the two variations is that while a boy is adorned as “Aati Kalenja” in the Nalike tradition, two senior men act the part in the Mogera tradition.
The dance itself is simplistic, not conforming to the elaborate dogmatic rules seen in other classical dances, said Mr. Kumar. “There is no training given. The communities celebrate and dance in other occasions by clicking their heels, walking on their toes, and in general, with a spring in each step. This is extended to Aati Kalenja too,” he said.
Surprisingly, even though, until recently, “Aati Kalenja” was only an oral tradition – passed on from the senior of the village to the young performers – the custom has been preserved in its original form, said Mr. Kumar. And uniquely, “Aati Kalenja”, though a figure of supernatural powers, remains outside the purview of Hindu mythology. “There is no worship, no temples, no prayers for Aati Kalenja. There is no connected mythology in Hindu texts. He remains integral in the folk culture of the region, and only during Aati, he is believed to descend and bless the land,” said Mr. Kumar.
However, with paddy fields disappearing around the countryside, the dance is gradually fading. It is now observed mainly in Puttur, Belthangady, and Sullia, which have been relatively untouched by urbanisation, Mr. Kumar said, and added: “In the towns, the dance has been preserved by modifying the blessing of fields to the blessing of shops and houses.”