Onam, a festival celebrated with a lot of fanfare, fervour and feasting by Malayalis in Kerala as well as across the world, will be a low-key affair this year, because of the pandemic. From dressing up in traditional attire to feasting on sadhya, the annual celebrations have always happened in the presence of family and friends. But in 2020, the mighty harvest festival may witness a muted 10-day festivity — that has already begun on August 22 and will end September 2. There, however, is something to look forward to.
While the celebrations can happen, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has urged people to stay at home. “Police should ensure that social distancing is maintained by people who go out shopping. No public celebrations should be allowed,” he has said.
As such, people have begun to improvise this year.
For Sreebhash S Kutty from Vallikkunnu village in Kerala’s Malappuram district, the mood of the harvest festival is palpable from even before the actual celebrations begin. “The festival vibe is huge in Kerala every year. In fact, 10 days before the festival, the preparations start with a bang; people begin cleaning their home, decorating it and making some elaborate plans,” says the 35-year-old.
As part of the celebrations in Kerala, boat races (vallam kali), women’s dance (thumbi thullal), tiger dances (pulikali), colourful masked dance (kummattikali), music and dance routines are arranged.
While Sreebhash recalls how every year Onam brought together relatives and friends, he rues that this year, amid the pandemic, it will be “minimal celebrations” on August 31, the main Onam day, also known as ‘Thiru Onam’. “Since everyone is confined to their homes, get-togethers won’t be possible. Even the 15-20 dishes that are usually a part of the traditional Onam sadhya, will be reduced to about three-four dishes that we can make at home with the available ingredients,” says the MTech professional, who lives with his mother and sister.
Giving us a peek into her celebrations, 31-year-old dancer Anuja Nair says that nothing is ever boring about the festival that celebrates the homecoming of the legendary King Mahabali, “even when you are not in the state of Kerala”. “Pune’s Onam festivities witness lovely cultural events which bring together relatives, friends and communities for traditional dances, flower decorations and traditional attire competitions,” says Anuja about Pune’s Kerala Samaj cultural events.
The traditional flower arrangements in the form of intricate floral carpets — also called pookalam — are made of yellow and white flowers, and are designed in front of houses and community centres.
Anuja is disappointed with the fact that this year’s small-scale celebration “won’t really be a celebration”. “There’s no fun to Onam without the presence of cousins, some games, exchange of gifts and home visits by guests,” she says.
Though the festival holds a lot of significance traditionally, for people like Reshmi Nair, it has always been about “having a sumptuous feast with family and relatives under one roof”.
“It’s that one day for Mallus (Malayalis) when food brings everyone together, irrespective of their religion or caste; everyone is simply appreciative and proud of their culture,” says the 27-year-old.
The main attraction of the festival is the ‘sadhya’, which is an elaborate feast comprising seasonal vegetables, mango and lime pickle, tamarind chutney and many other traditional recipes including avial (a korma-based recipe with a mix of potatoes, carrots, beans, raw mango and other things), pachadi (made of coconut, curd, chillies and pineapple), among others, served neatly on a banana leaf.
“We will be preparing the Onam sadhya for sure, but it won’t be as elaborate as it used to be, since it’s just going to be me and my parents this time. The basic dishes like rice, sambar, parippu (kerala style dal), pachadi, avial, inji curry (ginger curry) and toran will be there, followed by payasam. Had it been a regular Onam, there would have been more side curries,” Reshmi remarks.
While in the unlockdown phase in many parts of the country — including Delhi and its nearby areas — certain restrictions have been lifted, there is still a cap on the number of guests and gatherings. “There won’t be any gatherings, since it’s not safe right now. I am definitely going to miss that,” says Reshmi, who lives in Faridabad.
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