BJP chief Amit Shah’s ability to set the discourse is well-known, and he waded into the Onam season with Vamana Jayanti greetings. What if many were bamboozled by Shah’s invocation of the pint-sized Brahmin who deceitfully forced the asura king Mahabali into exile? It spiced up the celebration. Shah’s Kerala compatriots clarified that Vamana Jayanti is celebrated in several places, like neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Which may well be the case, considering that India abounds in contradictions and every villain is a hero someplace else, and vice versa. If Kesari, the local RSS publication, had not run an article exhorting Malayalis to celebrate Vamana instead of Mahabali, and if a state leader had not claimed that Vamana rescued Kerala from the asura king, Shah could have held out that his greeting was meant for Vamana bhakts.
The BJP leaders ought to have stood their ground. Onam is an inversion of the Vamana avatara myth. Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamana to liberate earth from the asura, Mahabali, whose fame had upset the gods. Vamana, who tricked Mahabali out of his kingdom, allowed the king to visit his land and people once every year, on Onam, which Mavelinadu (now Kerala) celebrates with a feast. Clearly, Vamana underestimated his popularity. As the folk song goes, under the rule of Mahabali, every man was equal and happy and lies and deceit were banished. With the power equation loaded in favour of Vishnu’s Brahmin avatara, Vamana too managed a mention in the celebrations in some parts of Kerala.
But Onam has outgrown the myth rooted in the Dashavatara story to become a secular, pan-Kerala festival, in which Mahabali represents the ideal ruler and Mavelinadu a utopia. The Onam sadya recalls abundance; in the absence of Mahabali, there would be no feast. And what is left of Onam without the celebration of vegetarian Malayali cuisine?