INDIAN FESTIVAL OF ONAM: Debating Regulations
The longing for Onam’s past is a pain one shelters in the deep recesses of one’s mind and intends to reproduce at will. This involves certain defeat. No one can replicate what they tell you in a story. It’s the storyteller’s version played out in your imagination. Your version may be miles away from the version the storyteller had actually told you. Such nostalgic past may have a bearing in reality. I don’t want to negate it and hurt someone. But that reality may be doubly removed by the time it reaches us through a television show.
If Onam is a Hindu festival, maintaining the powerful nostalgic content associated with it, there is no religious nostalgia with it, for as I said, even Christian churches make floral carpets and partake in the festivity by serving feasts on the occasion of Thiruvonam, the prime day among the four-day festivities. On the other hand, if Onam is an agricultural festival and the Hindu imagery associated with Onam is a way of responding to ‘culture’ in Hindusthan, then the nostalgia content is certainly market driven. The Onam nostalgia is mostly about our agricultural past and its various nuances. In the contemporary world, as Kerala is no longer an agricultural society, this nostalgia of a golden past plays out in the consumer market. In fact, Kerala has been transformed in one of the prominent consumer states in India.
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‘Sell whatever you have to celebrate Onam,’ proclaims an old adage. The focus of the earlier generation was on selling. This too may suggest that Onam is an agricultural or trade related festivity.
Whatever the meaning and purpose of Onam, I still celebrate it in the best way I could. Ask me why, and you may discover yet another complexity of having a festival celebrated in India. The truth is, I celebrate Onam because if I don’t, I’ll feel bad. Everyone celebrates Onam.
Recently, a few of the Onam celebrations that took place in some colleges in Kerala incurred scathing criticism. A college girl was killed in the hyperbolic and pumped up festivity conducted by the students of a college in the south of Kerala.
Criticisms have a way to grow into debates. Debates often grow into laws and regulations. Unhealthy as it is, this cultural phenomenon, this mentality to regulate every act of its individuals claims no depth at all. On the one hand, high intensity celebration of Onam detaches itself from tradition and traditional values, and on the other the political centers impose restrictions upon such “aberration” in Onam celebrations. The question I asked in the beginning was if this tradition is religious, or agricultural and in essence secular. Either way, it seems Kerala society has passed on a very disturbing message to its younger generation about the tradition of Onam.
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Now, I believe it doesn’t matter at all. It’s not an affiliation that causes centres of power to ban extreme celebrations but the associated nostalgia itself. When extreme celebrations cause damages to property and turn fatal to individual lives, it’s better to take measures to prevent these occurrences. However, these measures inevitably expose the cultural traces hidden in the festival of Onam—that is the unending nostalgia for a disciplined society. The Wikipedia article about Onam still proclaims it a Hindu festival. Someone should have revised it.