Aati festival

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Aatikala˝ja is a ritualistic folk dance performed by the Nalke community. Kala˝ja is the name of a minor spirit who is in charge of the protection of the village folk during the month of July - August rainy season. And that was Aati (Tulu for the month of Aashadha), wherein, according to the Hindu almanac, nature was at her vicious best.  Aati commences from July 17 and runs up to August 15.  It is during this month that our entire district witnesses heavy downpour that replenishes Nature and activates her for another cycle.

It is true that the rains beautify Nature and nourish all living organisms.  But there is a price to be paid for this - the inundation of land by swelling rivers and streams; the landslides and avalanches; the purifying organic matter and stagnant water in pools and ponds that become havens for parasites and harmful insects to breed in; the sudden bolt from the blue that stikes with destructive intensity.  All these leaving Nature's magnificient creation - Man himself - in the cold.

So what would man do in such circumstances ?  Naturally, he would frame it as a zero month.  But, this was not the only thing he did.  Instead, he devised new methods either to please the nature or to chase the evil that had cast its ugly shadows on his creed; thereby satisfying his urge for supremacy.

Thus was born Aati Kalanja,  on such creation of our ancestors to keep away the dangers wrought by the evil forces.  It is widely believed that by practising this ritual which is in the form of a dance, one would in fact exorcise the evil spirits that shoud the house.

During this period the members of the Nalke community decorate their body with the constume made of tender coconut leaves, ankelets, colourful cloth, long cap made if areca spathe etc., paint their face with various colours and designs, hold an umbrella made of leaves and decorated with flowers, go from house to house and dance in front of the spirit and beat a small drum known as tembare.

According to the ancient folklore, one can observe that there are two types of folk medicinal sciences.  The first one is the natural form of folk medicine which involves diagnosis and treatment of physical ailments.  Whereas the latter is the religious form, which revolves around sorcery and black magic - often used as a remedy for mental and psychological affliction.  Aati Kalanja falls in this category.

According to legend, the origin of this art-form is connected to a mythological character called "Kalanja".  He was no ordinary man, being bestowed with divine powers.  He was also destined to vanquish the all-pervading evil during the month of Aati.

So even to this day the same act is performed by the people who masquerade themselves as Kalanja and dance to the beats of drums in a rather unique fashion.  It is said that by performing the dance of Kalanja, the performer's house is freed from the evil spirits and restored to normalcy.

The Kalanja, who visits the homes during every monsoon, might look preposterous to viewers owing to his attire and facial make-up.  Sporting a red tooth-brush moustache with a face smudged with shades of black and grey, he would surely not be a pleasant sight. The house-holder gives them paddy, rice, coconut, turmeric, charcoal and the dancers perform certain rituals to ward off diseases and other misfortunes of the family and the cattle.

But the skirt that flows down his waist is undoubtedly a piece of art.  It is made of tender leaves of coconut palm which are interlaced with the strands made out of sheaths of the banana plant, which makes it a perfectly designed natural outfit for that particular season.  His ornaments are also made of palm leaves and he wears a headgear resembling a cobra.

With changing times, the unique art-form of Aati Kalanja seems to be slowly slipping into oblivion.  Restricted today largely to rural Dakshina Kannada, it may soon find a place only in the academic discussions and compositions ofa a few folklore exponents.

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