Navarathri is one of the most awaited festivals for the people of the coastal region of Karnataka. According to legends, the occasion marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon king Mahishasura, the victory of good over evil. The 10th day is celebrated as Vijaya Dasami. Though a festival that is celebrated all over the country, different cultures have their own unique customs and beliefs they follow during these 10 days of celebration, that makes the festival of Navarathri even more diverse and beautiful.
Huli vesha or Pili vesha in Tulu language is a folk dance unique to the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. It is performed to honour the Goddess Durga whose favourite animal is believed to be the tiger. Thus an ambush of tigers awaits for the people who fill the streets of coastal Karnataka, every Navarathri festival. Young men painted in black and white stripes all over the body, growling and dancing across the streets give the audience the perfect illusion of tigers prancing majestically. Troops of five to ten members or more, which will have three to five males painted and costumed to look like tigers, and a band called thaase in Tulu with two or three drummers roam the streets of their towns, with the accompanying drum beats of their bands. They stop at homes and businesses or on the roadsides to perform for about ten minutes after which they collect some money from the people who have enjoyed their performance.
Just like the name indicates, the troop dress themselves as tigers. To attain this, they colour their bodies to imitate tigers. The artists use bright colours like yellow, black and other bright colours to paint the whole body and face with a variety of designed stripes thus bringing the tigers to life. The painting, which requires hours of effort, begins a day before the performance. It is kept on the body for a couple of days and repainted as desired until the celebrations are over, when it is finally removed.
The most important part of this art form is the traditional ‘tiger’ dance moves. These steps require stamina and the dancer must be careful about the paint which should remain till the end. While the paint might cause some difficulties for few people, they endure it as it is considered a part of their culture. Apart from dance moves, which was traditionally required, today the art form has evolved into a much more acrobatic art form. Thus today, the artists exhibit skills such as fire breathing, handstand, hand walking, gymnastic moves and lifting Akkimudi (rice tied in straw, weighing 42 kg) in teeth and throwing it backwards. Their performance includes several acts such as swinging the mace, picking notes with mouth etc.
Culture and tradition is something that is set deep in the roots of the people. While time might bring about certain changes, the roots of the art form will also remain intact and will not lose its charm and beauty when there are people who cherish the art form for what it is. Thus Huli Vesha will always remain an expression of the rich culture of Mangalore.