KUMMATTI, a street pageant

via Padma Jayaraj published on September 3, 2006

 â€œ Here comes the Kummatti
There, he is at the gate…’’




Indeed, the revellers flock the streets followed by children clapping to the tune of the song and masked dancers stepping and moving in exciting rhythm. Kummatti, a street pageant is associated with Onam, the harvest festival in Kerala. Masked dancers flow from the streets followed by jubilant children enjoying their Onam vacation. They sprint in rhythmic movements to the words of folk songs creating an atmosphere of excitement. Perhaps, one day these children will know how they participated in an event that showed the beginnings of theatre that tinted their childhood memories. For, Drama began as mime. The first drama mimed the hunt, a magical rehearsal. Then the rehearsal became the ceremony, performed to the refrain of a song or prayer to a god. The mime of dance-drama became drama that enacted episodes from the epics, about gods, demons, kings, and humans. In Indian villages, for thousands of years, the drama whether of the hunt dance, or harvest dance or mime of plants swaying, or birds singing, remained a mixture of dance, song, and story. The difference between the folk and the classical is only a difference of degree in refinement, in organisation of ideas and presentation.


The festival of Onam


Kerala, on the southwestern coast of Indian subcontinent, is cut off by the Western Ghats from the main land. Blessed with plentiful rains an agrarian community grew up here with its own cultural expressions. The festivals of the mainland never seeped in, to make much impact. Consequently the national festivals of Kerala are its own: agricultural in character, rich in local colours, and replete with native legends. Onam is basically a harvest festival, after its first crop of the year, after a period of torrential rains.This is the season of flowers, flowers swaying amidst sun and showers.


Exclusive to Thrissur


Onam is a ten-day rejoicing throughout Kerala. But in the district Of Thrissur, the grip of Onam fever lasts longer than the normal ten days. The street-shows: both, the Kummatti and dancing-tigers are exclusive to Thrissur. Wearing masks, draping grass over their shoulders the kummatti visit houses. “It’s a kind of street dance and the enthusiasm the revellers generate is contagious” says G.Venu of Natanakairali.” Masks have a special place in the art forms of kerala. The masks reflect rich theatre tradition; they provide an ethereal dimension to the actors. And the costumes used are culled from nature: kummatti pullu, a grass with medicinal properties and masks from plantain stem. They say that the intoxicating fragrance of the grass is such that the players can go on  for hours on end. Scholars are of the opinion that Thrissur has seen this dance for more than 100 years now. Legend has it that Lord Siva residing in Vadakkunathan temple asked his bhuthas, accompanying spirits, to perform a dance to honour Mahabeli, the banished king of Kerala, on his annual visit. Many of the
Masks that parade are ganapathy, kiratha, kumbhodara and other bhuthas.
    
Pulikkali is the grand finale of the festival season of Onam in Thrissur. This folk dance is a highly disciplined one, moving to the dynamic percussion instrument, Kerala’s own Chenda. Painted ‘Tigers’, pay tribute to the tigers that once filled the region before humans and their rulers built their houses and palaces.  Both the parade of the Kummatti and Pulikkali are people’s festivals in which all communities take part irrespective their religion, in Thrissur.


Changes


Changing times have affected this pageant as well. The costume now, is a mixture of grass, paper and plastic. Mythical characters decorate the floats. Satirical characters like the thalla, the senile old woman, the drunkard, etc., give a social aspect to kummatti. And different groups enter into a competitive mood as the floats from its suburbs reach the heart of the town. The Swaraj Round becomes a spectacle with the floats surrounded by the masked, painted tigers dancing in frenzy. Tradition continues as these voyagers on time fare forward, sans gods and goddesses, and elephants in Kerala.


 

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