Ferocious cats parading through the streets of Thrissur have remained a favorite scene from any Onam celebration. The folk celebration has been a male dominion through its history, until a handful brave women dared to challenge the territorial monopoly.
Meet the tigresses who donned the body paints to break yet another glass ceiling. Rehna Fathima, Vinaya, Sakeena and Divya Divakar also drew a whole lot of attention to the ancient entertainment form with their daring.
Rehna Fathima hit headlines first when she participated in the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest against increasing incidents of moral policing in Kerala. She was the only woman in the Ayyanthol team in this year’s Puli Kali.
“It was not a spontaneous decision,” Fathima said. “I always wanted to perform in a space dominated by men. I had done a body artwork last year, resembling a tiger. When I shared that photo, that led to a debate on women taking part in Puli Kali.”
The decision was daring because women are usually encouraged to stay away from ‘Puli Kali’ or similar crowded revelries for their own safety.
“Where did such a rule come from?” asks Fathima. “Women are part of all festivities. Women lose out of that space because we seldom take the initiative to participate in it. I did not want to lose that space. But I still did not know who to ask. That’s when I heard that Vinaya was also planning to take part in Puli Kali. I contacted her but there was no update. I came to know that she was in the Viyyur team at the last minute. I was so happy.”
Fathima sent feelers to a friend who was in the Ayyanthol team. He presented the proposal to the festival committee and got it approved. “Each year, the number of participants and teams are increasing. Everyone wants to break last year’s record. Two teams broke the records this year, by fielding women tigers,” Fathima said.
“Many people were concerned if women’s participation in the body art would be obscene. How will people see when a woman exhibited her body in the street. But we were surprised to see the transformation of humans into tigers and leopards. Once you don the body paint, you can’t tell a man from a woman. In my case, it was slightly evident because I was lean. But the audience was cheering us irrespective of our gender.
“There were a lot of women among the spectators when the parade reached the Thrissur Round. Maybe they knew that women were performing too. I was happy to see their bright faces. That was when I realized the impact of my decision.”
Fathima said the gender differentiation was a social construct. “We created these distinctions. Puli Kali was only meant for the male body. Now women are also celebrating their bodies. How can it be obscene only when a women exhibit her body? It was time to challenge the perspective,” she said.
There was more to Fathima’s decision that meets the eye. “Women still live by the notions that their bodies are to be preserved for men. That is the reason they are being excluded from public spaces. She has to take an effort to reclaim those spaces. Women are included in classical art forms like Kathakali but with a clear demarcation by costumes. This is because of the general view that women’s body has to be kept away from public spaces.”
Fathima said she expected to perform at next year's Puli Kali too, hopefully with more women. “Everybody has their space there. We just have to find it,” she said.
Spirit of revelry
If Fathima was the only women in the Ayyanthol team, the rival Viyyur team had three woman participants. “We deliberated on it for a while before committing,” said Vinaya.
“The moment you talk about Puli Kali, you conjure up images of men performing. We wanted to change it. We mooted the idea in a women’s collective called ‘Wings’. But we were clueless as to where to go and who to talk to. Puli Kali is not limited to a religion or caste. It is a big celebration of the entire place. That is the spirit of the festival.”
Vinaya and friends were lucky to meet a compassionate listener, a representative of the Viyyur team. “We asked him in private. We wanted to ask him alone because we feared that someone would torpedo our plans. We were that careful.
“He was taken aback by our request. Then he patiently listed out the requirements. The most important was the body.”
The women had a formidable task at hand. The proposal to include them in the team had to be vetted by a committee of about hundred people. "There was no guarantee that they would accept us. We kept talking to them about the benefits of adding women in the team. They would get a lot of media attention. More and more teams and artists participate in Puli Kali every passing year. The best get prizes. Everyone tries to better their act.
"After all these arguments, they decided to include women in the team. We decided to perform in Puli Kali. We were in a group of six. They helped us put on the costumes and paint. We were secretive about the plan until two days before the performance. We wrote about it on a blog on the eve of the program. The media broke the news. We were still a bit apprehensive if someone would spoil our plans. The next day, we were greeted by reporters and cameramen. We donned the paint for 12 hours.
"Our 'Wings' is a collective of women with sportsman spirit. Women can do a lot more than cooking and looking after children. But people tend to think those who do these activities are smarter women. Women seldom possess a collective might. Wings aims to bring them closer to work together. Wings is trying to prepare grounds for women to take part in physical games and debates alike. To reclaim the public space was part of the agenda. That thought led to Puli Kali.
"Women who revel are often derided. Puli Kali is revelry. We realized how enjoyable this was only when we performed in it. Who told you it was bad to revel? More and more eyes were watching us every second. The crowd was looking at us. The thought was energizing. I had a problem with my leg at that time. Still, I practiced for a month before the actual date.
"We told the team that we were ready to give our body to you. The man who was supposed to do the body art was confused at first. He did not know what to do. But we never put forward any condition as women. They could treat us as they treated men. Maybe we could not be at the front of the parade. If you do not dance well, you would be relegated to the back. We had no problem with it. It is a game that demands lakhs of rupees.
"I have to admit that I was a bit scared when I was about to hit the street. I was the last one to go out. The paint was still fresh on my body. Everything would be spoiled if someone bumped into me. Everything went fine though.
"There were a lot of people to see us. A lot of cameras too. That was a thrilling day indeed."