Whenever I hear drum beats, I am reminded me of another day, another time – when I had been 7 or 8 and living in Nagpur. A time when the sound used to strike an inexplicable terror in me and I would have gladly done anything to escape it. Well, not the sound itself but what accompanied it. It happened around Dussehra/Durga Puja.
And now it is the same time again and I thought it about time I shared my terror of all those years ago with you all.
We had a lot of Durga puja pandals in various localities in the city and they were grand affairs. The huge idols of the goddess, decked in all finery and with a beautiful, benevolent expression on her face despite the trident piercing the demon at her feet, used to mesmerize us kids. We used to go to see the various Durga deities and partake of the prasad but underlying all the excitement was the dread of the drums.
They started days before the actual installation of the goddess’ murtis. I knew it was irrational – even at that age, but was helpless to prevent the slow creeping of the terror which intensified with every passing day and drumbeat.
Now why would anyone — even if that anyone was a child — be scared, of all the things, drums? It was not just the drums but the dancing and hooting crowds that accompanied it. I can see you laughing. Well, laugh all you want. Let me tell you that was not all; there was more.
The dance was not by any benign girl/boy/man/woman. It was by a tiger! And now, if you have finished laughing I will tell you about the dancing tigers.
They had blood red tongues hanging out and they jumped and whirled on the streets to the accompaniment of drum punctuated by blood curdling (or at least what sounded like that) roars and yells. They looked very very scary to the timid young girl that I was back then. They went from street to street and collected money for the festivities in their respective localities.
The tiger is the ‘vahan’ (mount) of the goddess Durga and it is a tribute to that beast that this ritual was performed as part of the festivities.
It is not only in Nagpur that this custom prevails. Elsewhere, too tiger dance is performed during festivals. Called ‘huli vesha’ in Kannada, it is a folk art form performed in south Karnataka during Dushera and Krishna Janmashtami. Puli vesham as it is known in Andhra Pradesh is performed by both Hindus and Muslims during Dushera and Muharram respectively.
Coming back to my childhood, these tiger dances started several days before the actual festivities began and my cousin, (who was younger to me by a year) and I would begin avoiding the streets these tigers danced in. We walked to school together and our older cousins usually had no patience for us kids to accompany us for ‘protection, even making fun of us for being scared. We had nothing to fear in the mornings when we went to school since the ‘tigers’ were still asleep at that time, probably tired after the previous day’s ‘hunting’. It was when we returned in the mid morning that terror overtook us.
We had to go through several localities, each with its own puja pandal and that meant as many tigers to dodge while we gingerly made our way home. The moment we heard the sound of the drums we would start running blindly in the opposite direction, which happened to be towards the school! The problem with this was that we had to not only face them again on our eventual return but also get a royal scolding from our mothers for being late.
There were only two roads to come home and one of the roads — the cement road — as it was called, was lined by affluent homes which were not disturbed by the tigers and was the longer way home. But who cared about distances so long as we could walk in peace? We would dart in and out of the side streets of the road panting, while hitching the school bags on our shoulders.
Most of the days we would manage to reach home without encountering one of them but imagine our shock one day when we miscalculated the direction of the sound and its proximity and ran bang into one of the processions. The ‘tiger’ could sense our terror and tried to pounce on us while his companions and a small ‘tiger’ laughed at us. My cousin had already burst into tears and I was close to, but I had to act the brave older sister, and so pulled her by her hand and blindly rushed out of the crowd and kept running till we reached our house and collapsed in a heap. Whew!
We both knew the ‘tiger’ of our locality who lived next door and had a cycle repair shop. He was a nice friendly ‘bhaiyya’ as all older boys were addressed in those parts – all till he donned the traditional dress of the tiger. He magically transformed from a good-natured young man into a ferocious beast, and though we knew it was just a mask, we were scared of the terrible looking teeth and blood red tongue. Come to think of it, his make-up didn’t look so scary and we would laugh at ourselves nervously telling each other that no tiger danced on two feet and had two human hands – all till the drums started and then he almost became a tiger for real!
I don’t remember other kids being as scared as we both had been. In fact crowds of them would follow the procession, dancing and clapping with the drumbeats.
Over the years the customs associated with Durga Puja have changed and I myself had seen the dancing tigers disappear in the city a decade or so later. I would have loved to see the ‘tiger’ dance with the drum beats and without any fear, but alas!
Can anyone tell me if these ‘tigers’ still dance?
Image courtesy: www.daijiworld.com