The clatter of the drum cuts through the air even before the performers hit the ground, shaking their hands and feet with fiery energy. Painted from head to toe in yellow and brown stripes, mimicking tigers, the veshadharis (masqueraders) go door-to-door.
They continue to dance to the rhythms of the drum, which are now infused with the occasional trumpet blasts of the hit Bollywood song "Teri Meri Prem Kahani" from the film Bodyguard.
The tempo gradually increases until the performers unshackle themselves, and perform gravity-defying leaps, walk tightropes and even breathe fire, all while a raucous crowd cheers them on.
These are the 'Hulivesha' artists of Udupi, performing the folk dance form popular in the coastal region of Karnataka.
During Krishna Janmashtami, the temple town of Udupi reverberates with the throbbing beats of these artists who throng the town and leave onlookers riveted, clamouring for more.
But the work that goes behind their high-intensity performances starts almost a month before the festival begins. "We meet one month in advance and decide who will be part of the troupe. We then practice some of the tougher stunts, but the basic dance routine is known to all and does not need regular practice," says Vignesh Bhandary, a 26 year old part of the Ashok Raj troupe from Kadbettu.
On the night before Janmashtami, the members of the troupe are painted in the vibrant stripes in a process that takes almost 12 hours, according to Santhosh Sherigar, who has been painting Hulivesha performers in Udupi for over 18 years.
"The paint on the performer has to reflect the vigour and grandeur of the tigers. We get the troupe together and try and paint unique patterns for each tiger, but the colours do not deviate too much," says Santhosh, before adding, "The performers have to stand patiently for hours because if they move, the paint may get distorted."
The performers also apply roma (sheep fur), which sticks to the paint and adds a layer of realism to the costume. "The skin itches for three to four days after the festival, but we do not mind it," adds Vignesh, who has been performing for over 15 years now.
A Hulivesha artist blows fire | Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty
After the painting process is completed, the troupe sets out to perform on the streets of the town over the two days of celebrations: Krishna Janmashtami and Vittal Pindi. The performances often begin spontaneously in front of shops and temples, attracting large crowds. The fervent dance steps are accompanied in tandem by the clatter of the thraase or chande played by musicians.
Each troupe includes boys as young as 8 to 10 years old and men as old as 50 and 60 years old and can have as many as 30-40 people in it. This year, for the first time ever, an all-female Hulivesha troupe called âAvighna Vyaghrasâ performed in Udupi, breaking a long-standing male stronghold on the art form. "We have performed in around 32 places today and we have around 19 girls, some of whom are studying in schools and colleges," says Raghavendra Kini, the coordinator of the group.
The performers are paid a token amount by onlookers wherever they perform, which are lapped up gleefully by members of the troupe. âThose who dress up and paint themselves are paid a good amount of money wherever they perform, as a token of appreciation and respect,â says Ramdas Samaga, who maintains a shop next to the Chandramouleshwara Temple in Udupi and has seen generations of Hulivesha artistes perform outside his shop.
But over the years, Ramdas has observed a change in the way these performers go about their task. "In the past, the performers would accept whatever was given to them, but today, troupes are highly organised. They plan in advance where they will be performing and often coordinate this by making phone calls to shop owners and temple authorities in and around Udupi," explains Ramdas.
Vignesh Bhandary along with the troupe members of Ashok Raj Troupe from Kadbettu in Udupi
The troupes of performers earn as much as Rs 5 lakhs in 'collections' for their efforts over the two days. "Nowadays, performers also attach themselves to a cause and coerce people into donating for it. But we don't know whether it is actually used for the purpose they say it will be," adds Ramdas.
The Hulivesha performances take place in and around Udupi on the first day of the festival, outside shops, temples and even residential areas, before the they converge at the famous Udupi Shri Krishna temple on the second day to perform at the Rajangana, a hall in the temple premises.
In addition to the Hulivesha artists, people in the town also paint themselves in a number of ways to add to the festive atmosphere in the town. Many of the faces are painted in the form of Lord Krishna. Shashidhar, a 63-year-old mason in Udupi, is supposedly an âOnida modelâ, painted like the devil in the famous Onida television advertisements.
Shashidhar is supposedly the devil from the famous 'Onida' television advertisements
Meanwhile, 28-year-old Santhosh from Shirva, is supposedly Davy Jones, a character from the popular film franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean. "I saw the character on the internet and told my painter to paint me that way," says Santhosh.
Santhosh is supposedly Captain Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean
Painters and costume designers in Udupi see a steady turnover of business around this time of the year. "Few years ago, we used to paint only rakshasas and bakasuras, but now, we get requests from people asking us to draw something they have seen in films or on TV. Everyone tries to hog attention with their costume and that has made our task harder," says Jayakar Bailoor, a painter and costume designer from Udupi.
Jayakar is one of the few painters, who is known for his intricate work, left in the town. "There is only Alakananda from Udyavara, Jayakumar from Kadekar and costume shops like A1 Costumes and Basha Costumes in Udupi, who still do this," he laments. Due to the handiwork of these painters, it is not uncommon to run into 'Predator' squaring off against a 'dragon' on the streets of Udupi.
People in Udupi dress up in a number of ways during Krishna Janmashtami | Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty
Every year, Udupi turns into a carnival of sorts on these two days and there is no escaping the tigers crawling around the town. "We can't tell what one might come across in these two days. People of the town dress up as veshadharis to pay homage to an old tradition," adds Ramdas.