Appu the leopard, Thrissur zoo’s prized possession, hadn’t bargained for this. The big cat, enjoying his forty winks was stunned to see a motley crew of animated women giving him the royal salute! Startled, he jumped back. Little did he know that these women would soon transform into tigers and pour into Swaraj Round to prance around like felines.
Well, if things are going the way they are, Thrissur is in for yet another year of female 'tigers' being the center of attraction during the Pulikali ritual during Onam. Tigers, leopards and all sorts of big cats will be out on the streets for Onam and not to be left behind are our cat women. Just four of them made a cut last year. The wholehearted welcome they received was an indication of things to come. This time around, the town will be besieged by “puppulis” as the lingo in Malayalam says. Try counting them!
Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, is no stranger to festivities. Be it the Pooram or Onam carnival, people here love to celebrate life. Nowhere else would one see such a cultural spread and the most attractive number, of course, is the “Pulikali” or the tiger dance as it is popularly known. People dress up as the puli or a tiger and prance around the streets of Thrissur. And it is not just people from Thrissur that participate. People from across the globe participate in the pulikali to the accompaniment of drums and frenzied people.
It’s so colorful that you get to see the chubbiest of tummies, heaving up and down painted with tiger heads, walking rhythmically to the beats of sounding drums. They are the male tigers, wiggling their ample bellies, trying to look as menacing as they can. The four women jumped into the fray last year to make a strong, but a silent statement. It was an act of mental emancipation, a declaration of independence and a show of courage. That they were welcomed into the male bastion was a signal that gender had little room in a place where culture knew no barriers.
After the curtains went down on last Onam, the dailies and social media were flooded with comments hailing the daring try of the four tigresses. But then anxiety set in. Would they be allowed to take part this year too? Would more women be allowed? Inquiries poured in from neighboring districts. To their rescue came Civil Police Officer Vinaya with her outfit, Wings. Vinaya’s Wings took the lead in liaising between the women and the organizers of various teams.
Now let’s meet the super cats. V.S.Ramani from Palakkad is just raring to go, sorry, roar! By age, quite a senior “tigress”, she is full of beans, waiting for the kill. Just retired from service as headmistress, she’s a recipient of the President’s Medal for the best teacher. “I’ve been waiting for this chance since last year. I’m in awe of Thrissur’s tigers. To join them and do this before a crowd is no mean task,” said the lady. Now did we hear a growl?
It’s actor and stage director Sujatha Jananethri who’s training the women in the intricacies of this cat walk. “Tigers have a peculiar gait, a natural rhythm. The women are excited to grab quite a lot of public attention. At the same time, all of them are very particular about following the traditions of pulikali,” she said.
The women are training hard in keeping with all traditions. But everything else is top secret. They are not willing to disclose how many of them will prance around or what the costumes are likely to be. If they had been prowling around all these years it was not because they were scared. They were biding their time to make a mighty pounce.
And that’s what brought them to the zoo. After the first round of training, someone suggested that a face-to-face with a feline would not be out of place. So off it was to the zoo. Now you know how and why Appu the leopard jumped out of his skin!