The state of Tamil Nadu is home to many spectacular cultural activities. Folk dances form an integral part of these activities. There are several types of folk dances that are played at times during the special occasions and other times during the festivities. Many of such traditional folk dances have emerged centuries ago and gradually evolved in form. Folk dances of the southern region essentially portray the cultural diversity of Indian subcontinent with their exotic display of costumes, graceful gestures and incredible style of performance that is truly a rare combination. Puliyattam is one such majestic folk dance belonging to the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The word ‘Puliyattam’ literally translates to ‘Tiger Dance’. The vigorous and euphoric folk dance Puliyattam imitates the graceful movement of the majestic and awe-inspiring tiger. The dance is unique in its expression and style like the other performing art forms that aim at impersonating animal movements and style like the Peacock Dance or Mayil Attam which mimics the colorful bird’s movements and costumes, Poikkal Kuthirai Attam or False Horse Dance which is enacted wearing a horse-like costume. Puliyattam dance is similarly executed by creating a replica of the fierce tiger through the dancer’s body and practicing the movements of the menacing beast.
Puliyattam is considered a very ancient dance form dating back centuries ago. Old Tamil literature has recorded version of Puliyattam dance. According to historical evidences, there are three modes of entertainment classified in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. These are Iyal ( Literature ), Isai ( Music ) and Nadagam ( Drama ). These separate mediums have their origin rooted in Therukoothu or the rural folk theatre. Hence many folk dances are performed solely for entertainment purpose. This dance is also commonly performed during harvest festival or other religious ceremonies in the southern region. Some even call it ‘Pulikali’ in parts of Kerala where the term ‘kali’ stands for ‘attam’ or ‘play’ in Malayalam, the native language of Kerala.
Music, Movement & Style
Puliyattam dance is heavily dependent on its music which helps the dancers execute the movements in a swift yet synchronized manner mimicking the unpredictable, ferocious nature of a dangerous tiger. The dance is a close observance of the movement and motion of a ‘puli’ or tiger. The dance initially begins with steady music, gradually rising in pace and rhythm. Drums are the main instrument used as the performers try to match their movements with the beat of music. Their fast movements, lofty jump and pouncing are all reminiscent of the menacing animal. Enacted chiefly by the male performers, Puliyattam dance so realistically portrays the action of the fierce beast that they even tie a goat or a sheep to a nearby pole to enact the pouncing movement vividly executed by Puliyattam dancers. The tiger’s slow, graceful walk, his majestic leap and silent maneuvers are wonderfully represented through this elegant folk dance.
Since tiger’s movement and his style is the theme of Puliyattam, the dance demands intricate costume and heavy make up to resemble the beast in order to execute a life-like performance. Men get painted by trained artisans who carry out extensive labor to apply tiger-color paints on these crafty Puliyattam dancers. The paint is applied all over the dancer’s body, whiskers are fixed along with a painted head gear of a tiger. They even add a long, fake tail resembling that of an original tiger’s. After completing the paint and costume, the dancers finally hit the stage to perform Puliyattam, the dance of a tiger.
The dance is usually performed with six men in a troupe as they perform together like a group of tigers. The upper portion of a Puliyattam dancer’s body usually remains covered with a loin cloth painted with yellow and black pattern similar to the body paint. With the beatings of drums and in the midst of vigorously energetic music, the dancers sway their audience with their magnificent display of tiger’s movements.