The Thekkady tribal dance performance takes place in a small auditorium, not far from the Periyar Reserve bus stand, across from the Bamboo Grove.
I walk into a dusty darkened room, with a few rows of wooden chairs. The door is open, and people are either fanning themselves or swatting at mosquitoes, or in some cases both. A red light glows behind the curtain. A rhythmic drumming emerges from behind the curtain. The door shuts at some point, eliciting loud protests from the increasingly claustrophobic audience. There is apparently a power cut, and this is the reason why they are unable to turn on lights or fan.
Sure enough though, the fans do come to life. A narrator tells us there are six ethnic tribal groups in Periyar. The group whose traditions are being presented is called the Mannans.
I’ve always found Indian tribal cultures fascinating. In Odisha, where my mother is from, I traveled to Sundergarh, and then to the very edge of the Odisha-Chhatisgarh border. The tribes there are so well-versed in the ways of the wild, that they will never go hungry. They understand how to live off the forests.
Likewise, many of those working in Periyar, including some of the guides and the fishermen, and the people who come gather fruit, are tribals. They have an acute sense of the jungle, and how to protect themselves from the elements of the wild.
I don’t know much about Indian tribal communities, but I know that they have a very special relationship with nature, one that most of us that live in cities, cannot begin to imagine. I find it inspiring.
This particularly series of dances is performed by men, and during a particular festival (the name of which was completely lost on me.) They named the percussive instruments, but those were also lost on me. These dances are performed during a certain time or day in traditional Mannan community.
The performers are topless, wearing skirts with trims of leaves, bodies decorated with paint. Their movements are fluid, graceful and beautiful. The stage is set to appear like a tribal village, with huts flanking the performers on either side, and a backdrop of forest.
The lighting is almost completely red, though I am not sure what the inspiration behind that artistic choice was. Musicians were placed towards the back of the stage, behind where the performers danced.
The first dance is a prayer to the mountain Gods, the second invites their exalted ancestors to join them, and the third signifies the organic relationship between man and nature in terms of agriculture, praying for the harvest.
The fourth, is the one I find the most interesting, and not only because it is the only one that is performed with a woman. It is because it marks merriment over all the good things in life, and all of God’s blessings. It celebrates all the good things that we have in our lives.
How many of us do this on a regular basis? I do not, unless prompted. This is why I find it beautiful, and inspiring, and resolve to do more of it in the future.
They actually invite some members of the audience to join them for this dance. A few tourists go up, and dance with them sportingly.
The fifth dance is about hunting, and is performed with bows and arrows, while the sixth one, I believe gives prayers for everyone there. Actually by that point, to be perfectly frank, I was really starving, and tuned out during the announcement.
As we file out into the chill of the night, after taking the obligatory photos with the performers, I get to thinking about how one country can have such a vast variety of different cultures, and how this is something I wouldn’t have a chance to see anywhere else in the country – only right here, in this moment.
Unfortunately my over-philosophical musings are interrupted by my taxi driver who is stopped in the road near the bus stand. He asks where I was and grumbles something about being worried, and so I reluctantly allow him to take me to the cafe I have selected for dinner.
Although I had hoped for the rest of the day without him, I sigh, remembering to be thankful for the good things in my life. The opportunity to be here, and to witness this performance, was definitely one of them.