Bhootada Kola: Dance of the demigods

The ritualistic art form has changed with the times, but its core remains untouched

gallery-image All decked up: A 2002 photograph of a bhoota performer getting ready at the Nemotsava in Koyyuru near Belthangady in Karnataka.
gallery-image A bhoota artiste dressed as Kallurti, a female deity, during the Nemotsava at Badakodi, near Moodbidri.
gallery-image On divine duty: Thaniyappa, a Panjurli bhoota performer, smears his face with yellow colour and white talcum powder at a makeshift green room next to the house of a landlord who organised the ritual at Badakodi.
gallery-image A Kallurti bhoota artiste blessing a newborn baby of the family that hosted the ritual.
gallery-image Kanthappa, a bhoota artiste, dressed as Mantradevate, a deity. Bhoota artistes take on different avatars at different events.

A midnight memory from 20 years ago flickers into focus.

Koyyuru, a small village near Belthangady taluk in Karnataka's Dakshina Kannada district, is clothed in darkness. Even the forest enveloping it loses all shape and colour― a verdant green―not wanting to give itself away. Sleep, too, flees. Anticipation is in the air. The rhythmic notes of the clarinet and the beating of drums spice it up. The only light comes from the amber mantles of petromax lanterns, and in its dancing glow emerges the yellow visage of Panjurli daiva. The demigod has descended, taking a human form. He dances fiercely as part of a ritualistic art form called Bhootada Kola. The performance takes place during the Nemotsava, an annual event in coastal Karnataka where spirits and demigods like the much-dreaded and revered Panjurli are invoked.

The bhootas protect villages and bring prosperity and good health. Entire villages, or at times wealthy families, organise the Nemotsava, where supernatural spirits are summoned to reveal the family’s or village’s prospects. Not everyone can be a bhoota’s medium―they are trained performers and usually belong to the lower castes in the Tulu-speaking region like the Paravas, Nalikes and Pambadas. They are dressed in an elaborate attire, with floral garlands, ornamental headgear and a skirt made of tender palm leaves.

gallery-image Faith, fire: Participants in a bhoota ritual at Kallugundi near Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada border during a midnight fire ritual to invoke the Vishnu Muthu spirit. Since the place is close to Kerala, the bhootas resemble Theyyam characters, and at times the festival has performers from Kerala, too.
gallery-image Devotees watch Dhananjayan Pannicker, a bhoota performer, jump on charcoal embers during an early morning performance.
gallery-image Dance like a demigod: Bhoota artiste Thaniyappa performs as the feared and revered Panjurli during a late night ritual. Panjurli, a divine spirit of a wild boar, has elaborate dance moves.
gallery-image A 2002 photograph of a parti or ritual handler carrying the paraphernalia used in the Bhootada Kola performance at night in Koyyuru village. A torch made of dried coconut leaves gives him light.

Bhootada Kola used to be exclusively performed during the dry months, from November to May, and was not much known beyond the borders of Karnataka. But today, smartphones and social media have given it global recognition and made it available all-season. What propelled its popularity was the success of Kantara, the Kannada film based on a Bhootada Kola performer. And, it is visible on my recent visit to a Nemotsava at Badakodi village near Moodbidri taluk. The roads are brightly lit and there are signboards giving directions to the location of the performance―a family is hosting the Nemotsava here. There is neither enigma nor drama. The LED lights flatten the colours on the face and attire of the bhootas. Even the air of anticipation feels different―it looks as if the village is awaiting an alien spaceship’s landing more than a demigod’s descent. Except the host family, everyone else is busy recording reels of the performance.

But all these changes have not affected its core. K. Chinnappa Gowda, an expert who has studied the Bhootada Kola art form for four decades, says, “It is normal for a folk art form to change with the times, like the skirts at some events now only have images of the tender palm leaves printed on them. Though the outer aspects of this art form have changed, its core sanctity has not.”

And for that, the bhoota performers should be credited. Despite the increase in popularity, they refuse to be in the limelight. Many turned down interview requests from THE WEEK. “Bhootas should be exclusively viewed and performed during the invocation events, not on mobile and theatre screens,” says Prashanth, a Guliga (a deity like Panjurli) bhoota performer at Badakodi village.

For, reels can seldom capture the surreal for real.