Poorakkali is a traditional dance ritual performed by men during the nine day Pooram festival in Bhagavathy temples across Northern Kerala (formerly known as Kolathunadu). The Pooram festival begins with the Karthika asterism and concludes with the pooram asterism of the month of Meenam according to the Malayalam calendar (the sun sign Pisces according to the Julian Calendar) to honour Kamadeva (the god of love).
The dance itself is performed by a troop of young men decked in lion costumes and is performed around a huge multitiered lit lamp also known as a "nilavilukku", and involves some pretty masculine movements and acrobatic martial art steps. There are no singers or musicians accompanying the dance and the dancers themselves keep rhythm by singing and clapping and synchronised foot thumping movements. The dancers themselves usually observe a month of abstinence and undergo strenuous practice before the performance. Most of the songs sung are hymns from The Ramayana or The Bhagavata.
Payyanur, Vengara, and Trikaripur are a few places in Kerala famous for this art form. The Panikkars are well known names in the world of Poorakkali and have contributed a lot to the survival and expansion of this art form.
It is a unique performing art of Kerala which comprises devotional and histrionic elements such as rituals, songs and dances. It also consists of a debate on topics ranging from philosophy to grammar. SUDHA GOPALAKRISHNAN on the week-long festival that celebrates the spirit of love.
IN the northern part of Kerala, a rare art form exists which combines ritual, dance and song with discussions on philosophy and the arts engaged in by the so-called subaltern classes over generations. This is called Poorakkali. What distinguishes it is the combined devotional, visual and intellectual activity in the form of a performing tradition of the socially disadvantaged Tiyya, Asari, Maniyani, and Salia communities. The marginalisation of these communities is the reason why it remains largely unknown. An exposure to Poorakkali would help understand not only this unique form of cultural expression but also subvert certain prevailing notions on the "ownership" of India's scholastic traditions.
As in many other community-based performances of Kerala, there are no definite clues regarding the origin of Poorakkali. It belongs to the oral tradition and consists of devotional and histrionic elements like ritual, song and dance with a debate based on classical Sanskrit sources. As a ritualistic performance, its roots perhaps go back to an ancient past when learning was not compartmentalised into separate and independently functioning systems. The integration of the devotional, intellectual and physical aspects of human life gets reflected in Poorakkali.
Performed as a week-long activity according to the local Malayalam calendar during the months of March-April , it is a spring festival celebrating the spirit of love through fertility cults, an expression of mirth through dance and battle of wits through a test. It is celebrated as a grand festival held in local temples dedicated to the goddess, with its participants being ordinary villagers who belong to the so-called 'lower' strata of society. This art form integrates rituals associated with the worship of the god of love, dances dedicated to the several deities worshipped in the region and an academic contest on issues ranging from logic, grammar, dramaturgy and philosophy, conducted by locally trained "scholars". What is unique is that the academic contest reverts the notion that intellectual activity is the prerogative of the elite . Here, the participants belong to the rural communities, some not even having the advantage of a systematic curricular study, but have acquired knowledge of classical sources through the oral tradition of learning .
Poorakkali has a three-tier structure. The first part , Kamane Veykal, is a journey from ritual to romance: the ritual is dedicated to Kama, the god of love. The mythological base of the festival is linked to the story of the burning of Kama by Siva's wrath and Rati's attempts to revive her late husband. Symbolically, it relates to the awakening of the fire of love, the sustenance of the world, in the human heart and passing it on to the next generation through the power of ritual. Girls barely into puberty perform this ritual. At the conclusion of the ritual on the seventh day, Kama is "released", with the request to "come back early next year". One of the songs goes like this:
"If you are going, start early, at the proper time, Kama!
When you come back, reach early, at the proper time, Kama!
Come back in time for the festival of Kunjangalam, Kama!"
The second part, Poorakkali, consisting of songs and dances is an expression of joy at the reincarnation of Kama. Though originally performed by women as part of the worship of Kama, men took to it, making it more vigorous and spirited. The dances have martial steps, complicated choreographic patterns and varying tempos. The performers,from six years to seventy are villagers belonging to the local communities. The songs invoke deities such as Ganapati, Saraswati, and Krishna, followed by Navavandana and obeisance to the elemental forces . The most important is the series of dances called "Pooramala" performed in 18"niram-s" (modes). All these have been integrated into the structure of Poorakkali at different points of time by different people.
Maruttukali, literally, "contest-play", constitutes the third part of the festival. It is a debate on academic issues between representatives of two 'kara-s' (localised regions of the same village), held inside the temple complex, mediated by a third person and held in the presence of the villagers . For each group, there is a leader, called Panicker, a title bestowed by the community for his erudition and debating skill. At the start of the contest,a participant asks complicated questions on varied topics. The person who answers, elaborates his point by citing textual sources to convince the opposite party. The opponent can try to disprove the ideas and this leads to a powerful battle of wits . The entire community participates cheering the participants. The debate touches on various topics. Both parties cite several theories (sastras), and the discourses are interspersed with Poorakkali dances and dramatic episodes like Sivakkoothu, Saktikkoothu and Yoginatakam. Though there is a general structure pertaining to the theme and topic of the context, the range of discussion is unlimited, and depends totally on the erudition and presence of mind of the contestant . At the end of the contest, one person is declared by the temple to have done better and the region which he represents has "won" the game. This marks the culmination of the festival and with a last ritual bath, the festival closes for the year. Preparation for the contest by enriching and expanding the knowledge base continues round the year, with each Panicker having his own corpus of texts and manuscripts in his personal collection. While Poorakkali exists in many temples,Maruttukali is limited to very few temples today.
The highly advanced level of Sanskrit scholarship and theoretical debate happening in the temples as part of festival rituals is an astounding experience. In fact, Poorakkali has to be viewed not merly from the perspective of ritual, and dance but in its social and historical context.
It is perhaps yet another form of resistance to the appropriation of the tools of learning and cultural domination by the privileged classes of society. Sanskrit learning is not the exclusive property of the elite alone, but is part of a common inheritance, which, can be accessed on a wide scale . Arts like Poorakkali reveal that religion, art and learning are not simply matters of individual experience, skill and creative activity , but are processes of sharing of common meanings and common purposes . They are also means by which society endorses common values and controls its environment.