Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam. The proverb that was popular during the pre-COVID days means that people must eat Onam feast even if they have to sell their property.
The pandemic has changed the very nature of Onam celebrations, but it has not lowered the spirit of the annual harvest festival. And people with penchant for wordplay have tweaked the adage to resonate with the changing times: Online Ayum Onam Aghoshikkanam, meaning everybody should celebrate Onam through online.
Everyone seems to be following suit, organising and participating in digital Onam celebrations across the world adhering to the social distancing norms.
Sample these. Narayanan Unithiri, a septuagenarian retired teacher, spends a few hours every day preparing his speech for the elocution competition organized by the library council at his hometown in Kannur. Far away in the United States, Ranjusha, Sreedha, Mini and their eight other friends perform Thiruvathirakkali swaying their viewers in Kerala. In Kozhikode, fourth-graders Milan Arun and Izyan Zenas got into the costumes of Vamanan and Mahabali with the loud online cheers from their classmates. In the southwestern European country of Romania, Roxana Sailă watches the pancharimelam, her heart rhythmically matching the beats of ecstasy. Fans of the famous tug-of-war teams Aha Friends Edappal, Navodhaya Athirampuzha and St Mary's Eravimangalam are excitedly campaigning for the upcoming vadam vali competition. It's just that all of them are performing before their smartphone screens and computer cameras.
Designing digital pookkalam (floral carpets), performing traditional art forms from their homes, preparing the sadya live and even including the mandatory games, such as tug-of-war and Sundariykk Pottu Thodal, Onam festivities have taken a virtual turn. Schools, colleges, clubs, residents' associations, IT companies and Ganamela (live musical concert) artistes have taken to the virtual world to celebrate Onam in all its grandeur.
Onam celebrations used to be most colourful in Kerala's college campuses. This time too, students are trying all means not to lose the sheen of the festival. Students of Nehru Arts and Science College, Kanhangad, in Kasaragod district are organizing a PubG tournament as part of their Onam celebrations 'Coronam 2020'. "We are planning a series of interesting programmes like 'badayi' speech (exaggerated talks), Maveli diaries, action song, mobile photography, Malayali Manka and Nadan Payyan, painting competition on the theme 'Maveli during Covid season', among many other things," said Akhil P. Madhav, secretary of Granma Samskarika Vedi at the college. Online games are included to ensure maximum involvement of students, he said. The winners will be given cash prize through digital payment.
Funny contests like Onathallu (not the traditional martial art form of rural wrestling, but the new-age 'bragging debate') already have several participants. The hilarious performance of Krishnapriya Raj, who won the first prize in the Onathallu competition at the Government Homeopathic Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram has already gone viral in social media platforms.
School children not far behind
Schools too are following suit. With online classes already happening, it wasn't a huge task for teachers to coordinate with students for Onam celebrations, but what surprised them was the amazing response from the talented kids who performed exceptionally though they are stuck at homes.
Anas Nilambur, principal at The Oxford School, Kozhikode, was in for a surprise when he watched the Onam skit by Milan Arun and Izyan Zenas, Class 4 students at the school, who performed as Vamanan and Mahabali. "Both of them were at their respective homes, but they had practised and was performing well, without any hiccups. Our Onam celebrations saw children performing live dance, cooking sessions, debates and compiling and editing videos of individual dance performances and presenting it as a group event. With all the stress these children face while staying at home, it's highly impressive that they come up with spectacular performances," he said.
Saji Thottathil, teacher and Onam programme coordinator at Government Higher Secondary School, Kodumunda in Palakkad, said: "Students took part in competitions in Onappattu, film song, water colour on Onam memories, Pookkalam using only flowers from the premises of their homes and a virtual 'Sundariykk Pottu Thodal', where each participant got 10 minutes to place the bindi on the right spot," he says. The entries were sent to the judges – experts in art and music – and they chose the best ones.
Like previous years, clubs and library councils lead the rural Onam celebrations with the participation of families, elders and children alike.
Sasidharan P P, a member of A V Memorial Reading Room and Library at Karivellur in Kannur district explains his club's online Onam celebrations plans for the year. "We are organising a karaoke contest, folk song contest, recitation, elocution, dance and music competitions for everyone in our village. The elocution contest on Sree Narayana Guru will see participation from all age categories and septugenatian Narayanan Unithiri, a retired teacher, is the oldest contestant in the fray," he said.
The competition mode is simple. Contestants should sent their entries to a WhatsApp number. This will be sent to the members of the judging panel, who will decide the winners.
Stressing that these all are adaptive measures at the time of an unprecedented pandemic, Sasidharan sees the virtual festival as an eye-opener. "We now know that nothing can come in the way of relationships and bonding. And that celebrations are possible on a minimal budget too."
Social media camaraderie
Joining the celebrations are social media groups where people who have never met in person collaborating for a mega Onam celebration through virtual performances and contests.
World Malayali Circle, a Facebook group with five lakh members, is celebrating the festival with a live pookkalam contest, photos of kids in Onam costume, Onappattu competition, cultural programmes and family photo contest. The winner will be awarded Rs 60,000.
Along with the celebrations, the Onam games and greetings too have got a virtual, innovative twist attracting attention. 'Sundariykk pottu thodal', the most popular game where the participant in blindfold have to place a bindi on the forehead of a woman's face drawn on a blackboard. The game, has this time, become online, where the face is masked by a number board, and the participant has to just mark the number which could be the spot of the bindi.
Greetings go online
A few children on autism spectrum, under the NGO Autism Club Ernakulam, have designed special Onam GIFs to greet people on the occasion. Deepthi Mathews, head of the skill development section of the club, says that the kids were provided a 10-hour online training over a few days which helped them to come up with animated GIFs.
Thirteen children on autism spectrum has presented their talent as part of the Onam celebrations. Deepthi says, "They have presented an Onam song by performing individually at their homes. Later, the videos were edited and released on YouTube."
Sreeparvathy, a girl on autism spectrum, has been penning poems on each day of the 10-day Onam, recites it and streams it on the FB page every day. A few narrate the recipes of the dishes and assist their parents in preparing those.
Another boy, Avaneesh, has prepared a Power Point presentation on Onam and the importance of the festival. With the help of parents, many have presented speeches and poems and have prepared Payasam to celebrate Onam.
Digital floral carpeting
Also in vogue are digital pookkalam competitions. During the contest, participants design floral carpets based on original ideas on Photoshop, Illustrator or Paint within the allotted time. The contests also include bottle art works, Ludo tournaments, live cooking, online debates and film making on Onam.
However, virtual Onam celebrations do not limit to Kerala, nor do the innovative ideas. Even the adrenaline-rush sport Vadam Vali (tug-of-war) has undergone a virtual metamorphosis.
UK-based Facebook group - Englandile Achayanmar - has announced an online competition from August 24 to September 15 in which the winning team will receive Rs 40,000. "The virtual tug-of-war contest involves only voting. The entries from all the popular tug-of-war teams would be put up for voting during a specific time period," says Joboy Joseph, the event organiser and an admin of the Facebook group. The group is already abuzz with videos, memes and war-cry from fans supporting their favourite team.
Onam in the US
At the US, members of a Malayali association have come up with a Thiruvathirakkali video where 11 women have performed to the song Dhanumasathinkal from their homes, sporting traditional Kerala saree and ornaments. The edited video has been released on YouTube.
Ranjusha Mani, who performed to the song and edited the video, said that recreating the celebrations virtually was a rewarding act. "Every year, we perform Thiruvathirakkali as part of our association's Onam celebration. This time, we didn't want to miss that. We connected over Zoom, chose the song, practised the steps, decided on the make-up, accessories and costumes and then shot it on our phones. I edited it and uploaded on YouTube. The response has been great."
Other than celebrations, the delicious Onam dishes too are being shared as part of Onam festivities. Over 130 employees of Nielsen, an IT firm in Kochi, who are currently working from home, celebrated the festival of harmony with Dubsmash contests, online quiz, pookkalam designing, dance and songs, sporting traditional wear. The usual sadya was replaced by sharing payasam mix, banana chips and Sarkkaravaratti (jaggery-coated banana chips) via courier and parcel. Mridul, an employee at the firm says, "We made an extra payment for courier service to deliver the Onam goodies to all the employees. In the Covid-19 scenario, the courier service was initially reluctant to deliver to far off places, but we got in touch with their head office and got it all delivered. More than 90 per cent of the deliveries are complete."
One community which is facing the brunt of toned-down festivities is the ganamela artistes whose daily bread depends on the festival season from August to May. However, virtual Onam points at light at the end of the tunnel. Manoj Swaralaya, a member of Ganamela Artists Welfare Association, observes that Facebook lives have come to their rescue. "Malayali community at various parts of the world invite artistes to perform live on groups and pages. They pay us for a two-hour live show. At a time when we are about to lose at least two festival seasons due to the Covid situation, this comes as a blessing," said Manoj, who also runs a music troupe.
His association is conducting an online Onappattu (Onam songs) contest for singers in Kozhikode and Kannur districts. "The videos of the songs without karaoke or accompanying instruments will be evaluated by noted playback singers and the winners will be awarded cash prizes," he said.
Another set of artistes affected by Covid are mimicry artists. K.S. Prasad, secretary of Cochin Kalabhavan, said there haven't been any virtual shows for mimicry artistes. "We distribute Onam kits among struggling artistes. Online art classes are being conducted for dance, classical music and musical instruments in association with World Malayalee Federation to help artistes. That's all we could do," he said.
Even the Kerala state government has gone online with the Onam festivities. For two weeks of Onam, from Kerala Tourism is streaming various cultural programmes and culinary events from August 22 to September 2 under the hashtag #Onambeyondborders on its various social media handles.
The fortnight events include panchari melam, pulikali, kerala natanam, folk songs, Onappottan, adapradhaman and sadya preparation, drumming session, kathakalai recital, film screening, family Onam celebrations and a two-day band performance by Job Kurian, all of these streaming over the days.
Biju B S, deputy director, marketing, at Kerala Tourism said all the programmes would be conducted adhering to the Covid protocol. "Though all the events will be premiered on social media, these will be shot beforehand. We have included contemporary shows with traditional and classical events to make it appealing to all sorts of crowd, including foreigners who want to visit Kerala once the situation ends."