Meet the dancing tigers

Meet the dancing tigers

Come Dasara and tigers descend on the streets of Mangalore. Scary? Not so, say people who witness the spectacle of two-legged tigers matching steps with the ear-splitting thunder of the taase drum. And so, several tiger dance troupes descend on Kudla’s (Mangalore called so in Tulu) streets during Navaratri, adding colour to the various processions of the goddess taking place then.

Indeed, the number of people dabbling this is on the rise in recent years and troupes have gone up likewise. Goraksha Dandu, MGT, Rajalakshmi, MFC, Jain Friends, Barke Friends, Sri Adimaheshwari Hulitanda, Geleyara Bala­ga are all well known. There might be more than 50 such troupes in the region.

One such troupe is the Mangaladevi Tiger dance troupe. The troupe leader Devaraj who dons the Hulivesha is fondly called as Pili Rajer (Tiger King in Tulu). A driver by profession, Devaraj has performed continuously for the past 35 years during Dasara.

He has also trained several “cubs” in Hulivesha. Naturally, this senior cat commands respect among the various troupes. So, how did he become the most respected tiger in the region in these 35 years? “I believe it’s all because of the Devi’s grace upon me,” he says. A vow by Devaraj’s mother before Goddess Mangaladevi to cure her sick son brought Devaraj into contact with Hulivesha.

“ A tiger is the Devi’s servant. A tiger is also Her vehicle. This is the feeling behind performing the tiger dance. Those involved in this have to be under strict discipline.

There was an unwritten rule that the performers should not consume non-vegetarian food and/or alcohol during this period. A tiger dancer was also not allowed to go home. For fear of smearing the paint onto other surfaces, say like mats when we lay down, we would use the Kesu plant leaves,” Devaraj recalled.

It is not easy to don the Hulivesha. One has to stand naked for hours to get painted, withstanding the scorchi­ng heat. He should then match steps with the taase and entertain onlookers. He should also perform feats of strength.

Tiger dancers are expected to bend backwards and lift currency notes through their teeth, lifting a 40-kg akki mudi (bag made of dry paddy grass used to store rice grain)etc.

Devaraj is well-known for doing this. Donning the attire of Appe Pili (Mother Tiger), Devaraj would bite and hold a grown sheep before throwing it backwards. But now such displays are banned. So, the akki mudi has replaced the sheep.

Says Devaraj: “ This kind of display requires immense presence of mind along with brute strength. A little slip and the result is catastrophic. It is common to see people losing their teeth during such performances. It becomes very important to see to it that the neck and nerves are not injured in any way,” cautions Devaraj. These daredevil dancing tigers have performed in Qatar, Dubai, Germany and the famous Ganesh Visarjan in Mumbai.

The veteran performer sounds realistic when he says it is very difficult to form dance troupes now. The expense for each tiger dancer, including paint, cap and velvet knicker costs a minimum of Rs 2,500. If there are a minimum of 25 such tigers what would the costs be? The troupe also requires a truck to be taken out in procession, decorative electrical lights, a generator etc... The total expense runs into more than a few lakhs, Devaraj points out. He rues the lack of dedication among the present day enthusiasts. Most of the dancers are neither devout nor committed. Earlier a troupe would have only 7-8 artistes. But now, you can find more than 50 in a single troupe! Entertainment and happy-go-lucky attitude are replacing devotion towards the goddess and the art, Devaraj laments.

Rajesh Shrivana
Translated by B S Srivani

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