When I was abroad, it was common for people to make jokes on ‘mallus’ and they amused me though three-fourth of my friend list consisted of boys and girls from Kerala. Then, I realised that the same jokes would change into a Santa and Banta amusement and then a Chinese delight! As I grew up, little did I pay heed to the festivals which did not include water balloons and fire-crackers. The festival of Onam was one of them! This year I made sure I attended the celebration at our society and I was amazed at the things I learnt there!
‘Pookalam’ is flower-arrangement. As each block would anyway be decorated with flowers, a competition was held for it. Females of all ages sat to make the best ‘Pookalam’ ever! Heaps of flowers of various colours and types were kept aside for this competition.
The first evening began with a huge procession following a bunch of men banging the drums, who were in turn following the supposed ‘King Mahabali’ and his troop into a huge white tent!Onam is a festival that marks his annual homecoming from the netherworld. After I joined the parade, I suddenly felt important. A few bananas, a coconut, wheat and incense sticks were placed at his feet when he stopped to bless us all. Once the drum sounds stopped, probably the oldest Keralite in the society was called on stage along with his wife to light the lamp which inaugurated the celebration.
I have the green faced dancer a few times but never bothered to know more about him. Today, I learnt he was ‘Kathakali’ – someone who performs according to scripts mostly from the ‘Mahabharata’ with elaborate costumes and well-defined body movements and facial expressions. Out of the two-and-half hour performance, the last one hour I was present was enough for me to understand what was going on. Towards the end, I was told the names of the characters and with the help of Google, I knew what I watched. It was a story of Arjunaand Lord Shiva and his wife Parvathi. My daughter was excited with the fighting and falling of Arjuna; not to mention the costume.
Half an hour to the end, it began to pour. All those watching the musical from outside the tent, either ran home or towards the tent. After the act, we were stuck there until it reduced to a drizzle and we wouldn’t get too drenched!
The second evening was to start with a singing competition which was postponed due to the heavy rain that began just before the scheduled time. We watched wonderful cultural performances, thereafter, which took us into the night. Women of all ages performed amazingly well.
Sunday, the last day started with children activities and a yummy Onam lunch also called the ‘Onam Sadya’. After people rested on their over filled tummies, in the evening, the singing competition was finally held despite the rains blessing us yet again. The finals were kept for another day due to being short of time. And no one knew if there would be a flood soon as our shoes were already soaking in the ground. Professional stunt-men performed the ‘Kalari Payattu’ – which is another word for Kerela Martial Arts, with swords, knives and long wooden sticks. This reminded me that I had to get these beats and try some belly dancing on it; something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time now! The celebration ended with the final noisy ‘Chingari Kalam’ which is the popular percussion group performance of Kerela. Watching the lean built drummer boys and martial art performers, I realized that they have put tremendous effort and time into these performances, and as the master of ceremony informed us, this is the result of years of practice.
It was a marvellous end to a three-day celebration and feast, fabulously organized by the Malayali Community in our society. I personally thanked the ones I knew and told them they did an incredible job! And, this was all for free. We did not have to pay a dime unless we wanted to eat or buy items from the smaller stalls around the huge tent. Under our umbrellas, my husband, my daughter and I enjoyed some pav bhaji and chole batura which was not too spicy yet tasty! The rain refused to stop till we fell asleep!