India lives in her villages, and India lives in her traditions. It is pretty much irrefutable that rural Indian practices define the nation’s ethos, energy and roots to a great extent. It is an appreciable fact that though the factors that germinated certain practices are not prevalent anymore, the practices still are; and they are still considered to be the ethereal assets of the country. Occupying a prominent place in the category is the ‘Mahakaali’ or ‘Mankaali’ dance of Tulunadu in Karnataka.
The festival of Deepavali just went by, and in Tulunadu it is a festival of numerous exclusive traditions including Baleendra Pooje, cattle worship, feast for Bobbarya, and of course the Mahakaali Kunitha. These traditions are followed till date by Tuluvas, making Tulunadu a great place to be during Deepavali.
The Mankaali Kunitha that happens during Deepavali is a seasonal phenomenon that is unique to the festival of lights. The tradition consists of two prominent people among whom one of them sings and the other dances. The dancer is dressed in an outfit that is similar to Bhootakola, but with much lesser embellishments. He drapes multiple sarees on his waist in a decorative fashion with closely placed pleats and wears a loud pair of bronze anklets that herald his coming from afar, as well as coordinates with the rhythm of the song to which he dances. The anklets are worn over a protective cover made of arecanut leaves that are wrapped around his legs just above his feet, and affirmed to place with jute threads.
The singer could be a man or a woman, who carries a small drum-like instrument named ‘thembare’ and sings a ‘paad’dhana’, a popular form of Tulu folk songs. The instrument creates a rhythm to which the dancer moves, his steps limited to what resembles a rather hap-hazard walk in circles; but is graceful with the costume and with the pretext associated with the tradition.
The most important part of the entire identity of ‘Mahakaali’ is the large mask made of, again, arecanut leaves. The mask is at least 4 times bigger than an average human face, and is created such that the dancer puts it over his head and holds it up with his hands. This restriction for the hands explains the limitation of the dance which includes only leg movements. The mask is covered from the back with a white cloth, which, when the dancer puts on the head, resembles a cape. The mask is yellow in colour with a face of Mahakaali drawn on it with paint. It has large set eyes, an outline like the petals of a flower, large protruding tongue and a prominent moustache. The mask does symbolize a deity that is ferocious, but is not intimidating.
This entourage, generally accompanied by a family member, goes to every home in the respective village on the second day of Deepavali. They reach every home and perform the dance for 5-10 minutes as the family members watch, and perform a small ritual symbolic of taking away the evil in the house and leaving behind good. This is the underlying idea behind this tradition.
In Tulunadu, Mahakaali is a guardian spirit that is understood in different forms. This Mahakaali is a Dravidian concept and has no connection to Goddess Mahakaali. Also, ‘Mahakaali Abbe’ is a spirit popular in Uttara Kannada, and some experts say that the Mahakaali Kunita is based on this spirit. The Paad’dhanas that are sung during the dance have lines that say ‘Mahakaali comes from above the ‘gatta’(hilly area) to your place, to take away the evils and leave you prosperity’. Some Paad’dhanas also state ‘here comes Mahakaali, the sister of Lord Baleendra’. Though the original identity of Mahakaali in this particular tradition has numerous interpretations, the idea that she goes from home to home in every village to take away the evils is the same. Also, she is recognized as the guardian spirit who controls the evils in a village such as diseases and hardships, which explains the embodiment of her in a practice that symbolized elimination of evil. Though a female, the mask denoting her has a moustache, which indicates ferocity. Many guardian spirits of Tulunadu are constituent of such physical factors that might seem out of place but are symbolic of some virtue.
The second idea behind the tradition is also the survival of the labour classes, which was a practically applicable concept during the old times when there used to be a specific community of people identified as the labour class. This class of people did not practice agriculture and had no means of their own to survive, owing to which, it is said that they initiated traditions like Mahakaali Kunita, Sonada Jogi and Aati Kalenja. All the mentioned practices are seasonal – one of them in monsoons, one in spring and another in autumn. This practice allowed people from this community to form entourages and visit every home in the village, perform the ritual of taking away the evil and providing the villagers a sense of protection, and take some food grains and/or money in return.
An expert in Tulu culture, Shrikanth Shetty says “there used to be yet another construct in agricultural families named ‘polsoodi’. After the harvest, Tuluvas would spread the produce of the year on their front yard for it to dry, and while at it, also bothered that some evil force would cast an evil eye on it. In order to protect the harvest from it, they made a bundle of rice harvest and plunged it atop the roof – this bundle was called ‘polsoodi’. This way, they believed that the evil eye would be directed towards the bundle on the roof and wouldn’t reach the heap on the ground. And when Mahakaali came home during Deepavali, they let the entourage take away the ‘polsoodi’, and a chunk of charcoal from the house alongside food grains and moneys, indicating that they are taking away all evil.”
The materials such as rice, grains, vegetables, oil and money collected through this practice would last the community for 1/3rd of a year, after which they went again in the form of another deity, performing another ritual. Though this concept of ‘labour class’ is no more prevalent, the traditions are still upheld in Tulunadu in the exact same manner and has become a part of the larger cultural identity. Although, it is true that it has diminished overtime, leaving only a few towns such as Karkala, Nitte, Parkala and Mala where Mahakaali Kunita is still prevalent. Regardless of its applicablility in the contemporary context, the tradition is a beautiful one and adds to the festival ambience of Deepavali in Tulunadu. Efforts are being made by young people to conserve the folklore.
(An edited version of this article was published on ‘Spectrum’, Deccan Herald.)