It’s Onam again at Visthar!
The pandemic forced us to suspend Onam celebrations for three years but we were back with a bang. Kerala’s popular harvest festival with elements of drama, myth, fantasy and adventure was observed with gusto this year at Visthar.
The campus was a sea of shades of white and gold as guests, students and staff fluttered around in their traditional Onam sarees and mundus with glittering borders. The thrilled greetings and frenetic picture-taking set the ground for an action-packed day.
For, Mercy Kappen, the Executive Director of Visthar, Onam is a celebration of memories and hope: “The myth surrounding Onam has several interpretations. At Visthar, we follow the legendary ballad Kerala has been singing for generations celebrating both Mahabali and the imaginary welfare state that once Kerala was.” Mercy reminds us of the Onam song, Maveli Naduvaneedum Kalam, lines from which are quoted below.
When Maveli ruled the land,
All the people were equal.
And people were joyful and merry;
They were all free from harm.
There was neither anxiety nor sickness,
Deaths of children were unheard of,
There were no lies,
There was neither theft nor deceit,
And no one was false in speech either.
Measures and weights were right;
No one cheated or wronged his neighbour.
When Maveli, our King, ruled the land,
All the people formed one casteless race.
Stories abound on how Onam came to be celebrated. Each version is rich and complex in its narration. As Executive Trustee David Selvaraj said: “It’s always good to hear renowned folklores that have different versions. This reminds us that truth doesn’t have one version and compels us to keep our minds open to different possibilities.”
The most popular story goes somewhat like this: In Mahabali’s kingdom, everyone was living in peace and prosperity. The celestial world felt threatened by his popularity and the idea of equality and justice for all. Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu tricked Mahabali into giving up everything, including himself. He came in the form of a dwarf Brahmin and begged Mahabali for three feet of land. The king generously granted Vamana the gift. The tiny Brahmin then immediately turned fantastically huge and covered the earth with his first step and the heavens with his second. With no place left, Mahabali offered his head, and Vamana’s third step sent him to pathala, the Netherlands. Before being pushed into the abyss, the king asked for a boon to visit his people once a year. Onam is Mahabali’s annual right to visit his subjects.
Pookkalam or floral rangoli is an important part of the celebrations and creates the right ambience. We had our team of interns helping out to create two innovative designs – one at the entrance and another around a tree in the celebration area. The tree design was an elaborate orange and yellow creation with dashes of red and purple. The entrance design, arranged around a pot, had orange and yellow flowers set off by white ones.
The guests assembled at the reception area and were welcomed by Nazar, Associate Director of Visthar and cultural coordinator of the Onam celebrations. He gave us a peekaboo into the celebrations before we headed for the amphitheatre where the celebrations were to take place. But on the way, there was a surprise. Guess who emerged from the well? Our very own, homespun version of King Mahabali played by Manu – looking every bit from dress to demeanour like the fabled king. Under the umbrella held by his attendant, he led the procession to the venue.
When we reached the amphitheatre, King Mahabali comfortably settled into his throne chair. And we in the audience got ready to watch the show. It started with Nazar narrating the story of Onam with the help of an able silent cast enacting the words.
Next was a spirited Onam song rendition by Asha and the team. Asha is an Associate Director based out of our Koppal campus. She was delighted to be able to play a big part in the festivities: “It’s a wonderful feeling to be involved with the celebrations at all stages. We are celebrating not only the festival but life itself with song and dance. Celebrations bring us together and give colour to life.”
Thiruvathira is a special dance performed during Onam. Jeena, Asha, Savitri, Priya, Judy, Christina, Revathi and Sonu were the dancers who made Thiruvathira alive for us. The audience was enthralled by the moves and moments of the dance. Savithri, one of the dancers and a part of the logistics duo said: “During practice sessions we were nervous and the steps seemed tricky. But while performing we were one with the mood of the spectators and the movements just flowed.” We absolutely agree.
The importance of the sadhya to Kerala’s Onam celebration culture is defined in the famous Malayalam proverb: “One must have the Onam lunch even by selling one’s property if need be.” Our Onam feast, was organised by Sheeja and the CRC team. The vegetarian meal of about two dozen dishes was traditionally served on banana leaves. The menu reflected the spirit of the season and was prepared with seasonal vegetables.
Augustine from the logistics team was all praises for the fare: “The food was amazing, pure Onam. The dishes were perfectly presented on the leaf – different items were placed in different places. All the 26 dishes were good. But I particularly enjoyed pineapple kichadi and the finger-licking payasam.”
Lunch was followed by fun and games. The games were facilitated by our interns, MSW students from Christ University, with support from Augustine and Jeena. And if you thought everyone had spent their energy after all the roistering, you couldn’t be more wrong. From the little ones to their grandparents – the excitement and energy were unbeatable as they competed in the games. The day ended with the prize distribution and an impromptu dance session.