It is a tale of a promise kept - one that would make the atheists squirm. But it holds a message at a time when faith and religion are driving a wedge between people. The protagonist is a Christian performer of Padayani, a ritual art form to propitiate a temple deity. And, it does not stop there, the performances include a Namaz in front of the deity. (Padayani or Padeni means row of warriors. The art form uses dance, songs, facial masks to create the desired effect. Folklorists say Padayani is an ancient dance form, remnant of ancient Dravidian forms of worship).
Twenty-five years ago, a young man in his late twenties had to face the question of his life. His young wife was in the family way and they were expecting their first child. But the doctors told him that it was time to make a choice – either the baby or the mother - his wife was in a critical condition.
The devastated youth had no choice but to make a fervent plea to the village deity in Ezhumattoor in Pathanamthitta of Kerala – though he was from another faith.
A quarter century later, Raju Chacko is a happy family man and lives with his wife and two sons. He kept his promise to the goddess - of performing a Kaalan Kolam as part of the annual Padayani festival of the Panamattathukavu Sree Bhadrakali Temple.
Raju, 54, a practising Christian who belongs to the St Thomas parish of the Marthoma Church at Ezhumattoor, has been an active performer of the Padayani festival at the temple which coincides with Vishu, the festival of prosperity for the people of Kerala, for the past 26 years. He has, over the years, emerged as and transformed his village into an epitome of religious harmony. (Padayani is a ritualistic art form which is performed in devi temples of Central Kerala).
Born and brought up in Ezhumattoor, some 30 km from Pathanamthitta, Raju, like his peers, grew up attending the temple festival and the Padayani performance. But, he never thought of becoming a Padayani performer until it really happened, thanks to a 'tongue slip.'
“I wanted to say that I would offer a Kalan Kolam to the deity of the temple. However, I ended up saying 'I will perform one' if my wife and kid were saved. And, I didn't want to break the promise to the goddess,” Raju told Onmanorama while busy making the Kolams for the ongoing Padayani festival at a house near the temple. Kolams are masks of various deities made using arecanut leaves and natural colours. Padayani artists perform wearing the masks, of various sizes, on the temple premises to propitiate the deity.
Each performance is considered an offering like the one Raju made 25 years ago. Unstopped by the rigours of religions, Raju indeed plunged into the spirit of the Padayani festival, taking baby steps in the ritualistic art form under the guidance of veteran performer Manmathan Nair. “One day, Raju came to me and said he wanted to learn Padayani. I accepted his request and asked him to join me. He belongs to the first batch of 10 performers whom I had trained,” Manmathan Nair said.
Over the years, Raju has become a master of the art himself. He has performed all the Kolams presented before the deity. He is also an expert in making the Kolams. Raju said he has never felt a conflict of beliefs while taking part in the ritual. “Why should I? I believe that there is only one god and it doesn't matter how you address the force. You may call it the almighty, or Allah or Bhagavathy,” he said, nailing all possible doubts. “I never had to face any opposition from either the church or the temple,” he said. Raju works as a welder in his village.
The chemistry Raju shares with his fellow artists, all bound by a faith and the love for the art, also reveals that they do not consider him an outsider. Raju never had to face any opposition from his family too. His wife, Lissy, and sons Asith and Binu, both working in the Gulf, offer him all the support.
Raju's expertise in and commitment to Padayani have taken him places. “We have been part of Padayani festival of almost all the temples in Kerala where it is performed. We go to various temples for Kolamezhuth, the art of making the masks,” Raju said.
Raju does not consider himself a rare individual. “I may be the only Christian who performs Padayani, but here in our village almost everybody shares the beliefs. People come to attend the temple festival irrespective of their religion. Many even offer to sponsor Kolam performances to the deity,” he said.
Ezhumattoor's strong secular fabric is visible in the Padayani performance. A part of the seven-day festival which ends on Vishu day (the beginning of the Medam month of Malayalam calendar) every year is a performance called 'Thangalum Padayum.' In this, the performers appear in the attire of Muslim warriors. They even perform Namaz in front of the deity of the temple.
Adding to the spirit of harmony, this year, a procession to the temple will be taken out from the Noor ul Huda Masjid at Seethakkulam on Sunday, Vishu day.