Karnataka's 'Huli Vesha' Is A Janmashtami Ritual Of Catharsis & Spiritual Reverence

The folk dance of Huli Vesha involves body painting, acrobatics and street theatre.
The folk dance of Huli Vesha involves body painting, acrobatics and street theatre.Pradeep K S

The sea breeze anoints the coastal city of Udupi, delivering peevish grains of sand that will remain stuck to the bodies of Huli Vesha performers for up to two days of Janmashtami. Lining up behind one another, the masqueraders (veshadharis) are slathered with pigments of white, yellow, and a smouldering orange stolen from the mottled likeness of Durga’s divine vehicle — the tiger; symbolic of greed and vestigial wilderness within the human spirit. Many generations ago, the body paint for this ritual was derived from roots and fungi, but today it could be acrylic or even distemper meant for walls. The thick coat seals up pores in their skin, causing adverse reactions among the dancers, often leading to headaches and nausea in some as a side effect of the high levels of lead in these dyes.

It takes the men almost 12 hours to slip into the vesha or hide of the predator, complete with a fuzzy helmet made of sheep’s wool mounted on their heads, all the while repressing the urge to scratch themselves. The discomfort they undergo, sleeping on plantain leaves to keep their bodies cool, as their minds peregrinate the jungles of consciousness — this is all part of harake (in Kannada) or pursuing the blessing of prosperity.

For among the professional veshadharis in the troupe, there are always a few novices who have never gyrated to the banging of the tasha drums before, and a tiger masque is their opportunity to express gratitude. These are devotees who have witnessed the benediction of the goddess, those who have either seen a loved one recover or surmounted financial calamity in their own lives, convinced that their prayers were answered.

A traditional hand-me-down for the Tulu-Kannada speaking peoples of Udupi and Dakshin Karnataka, Huli Vesha or pili vesha is a surreal amalgamation of folk dance with street theatre, simulating a metamorphosis that helps the veshadharis to experience a psychic triumph over their primal instincts. Bedaubed with hypnotic striations, psychedelic spots dappled across their shoulders and bearing lifelike images of lions on their taut bellies, the masqueraders will emerge from the talcum nightmare of drying paint with their limbs sore from standing for too long.

The carnival will demand utter abandonment, the percussionists whipping up a frenzy as the feline dancers climb into buses to ask for donations or draw crowds who are beguiled with their public feats of inhuman strength. Contortionists, fire breathers and acrobats on peg stilts transform the streets into a vaudeville phantasmagoria. 

As the procession nears the temple where the worshippers will offer coconuts to Krishna, the masqueraders are inhabiting their animus completely; legend has it that until a decade or so ago, they would even sacrifice sheep and toss the carcasses in the air with their teeth. Each mandali or troupe consists of 10 to 15 men, including drummers and some children. The donation money they receive funds their painting supplies or ends up at the local shrine.

In 2018, an all-female troupe performed in Karnataka for the first time, most of their proceeds going to charity under the Asare programme. 

Off late, the performative aspects of this ceremony have been co-opted to spread awareness about pertinent issues like girls’ education and the climate crisis, replacing the flippant pageantry of yore. Last year, the Peace Foundation sponsored training for a team of seven differently-abled veshadharis and the money collected from their performance was handed over to the underprivileged in Udupi.

Lately, the folk ritual has become commercialised, even embracing break dance in some instances.
Lately, the folk ritual has become commercialised, even embracing break dance in some instances.Technical newz (Pinterest)

The production reaches a crescendo when the dancers crouch and snarl, the possession is now seamless and the exhilarated onlookers cannot tear their eyes away. With its roots in a pastoral tradition of beseeching the household gods for a better harvest, the Huli Vesha dance has evolved into a proud legacy of cosplay and catharsis for those who still flock by the thousands to immerse themselves in this curious incarnation of Janmashtami. Quite a break from the good old dahi handi, isn't it?

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