Come Onam, celebrities and somebody who is anybody is seen on Television channels reminiscing the Onam of the past and of their childhood. Amusingly young film actors in their early twenties proclaim, the good old Onam that once was and ruefully reminisces the days of the mythical Emperor Mahabali. Wonder if they confuse Mahabali with Bahubali. That will be the last straw!
Having been through 58 Onams , I guess I have a fair right to pen a few words on it, when Onam was not a commercial melee and ‘athapookalams’ were not embellished with pesticide laced flowers from Tamilnad and Karnataka ; when veggies were not doused in toxins; where there was a feeling of elation and success the night before “Thiruonam”, when the local sartorial expert would honour his commitment and deliver your new Onnam shirt & trousers, skirts & jackets. There was no ARROW and Tomy Hilfigers then to walk in and pick one’s ready to wear ‘Onakodi’ dresses. Moreover elders did not have the vanity to indulge and there was no Maria Saharopovas and Tendulkars to ape.
‘Athapookalams’ had individual flair, even the ones in street corners. They were made in different layers and in clay. 3, 5, 7 & the jumbo ones with 9 layers. Cow-dung paste was laced over to act as glue and petals and flowers were stuck to them. Each household chose their own size of ‘atha-thattu’. Flowers were procured from around the neighbourhood. The cunning and watchfulness, the networking among children’s group enabled to scout and identify houses that had flowering bushes and foliage. Then it was the clandestine hunt early before dawn, crawling and climbing over fences and walls, duping noisy watchdogs that tell the master of little thieves set out to stealing flowers. Some good Samaritans willingly let you in and allowed you to collect flowers for the ‘pookalams’. The nip in the early dawn air, the smell of blooming flowers, the freshness of fallen flowers nevertheless, the sheer motivation for it all cannot be explained and have to be felt.
The ‘pookalams’ at street corners and squares where managed by the slightly older folks and was enlivened through the day with film songs played over loudspeakers that were not noisy and often a persevering bloke on a bicycle would undertake nonstop cycling mission around the ‘pookalam’. I still cannot relate the significance of that during Onam but it provided lot of awe and fun. Then, the ubiquitous swing that remained a sine qua non to usher in Onam!
Then while we were in our late adolescence and into our teens the venturing to cinemas to see the block-busters that were released for Onam. Often they were dominated by either a MERRYLAND Studio production or the UDAY Studio production- a mythical grand story of the war of Gods or the chivalry of a ‘Vadakan pattu’ folklore.
The grand melee and finale on Thiruonam day was unforgettable. It generally would be modest kind of embellishment of the ‘atham’ that morning as the full and blown out decorations were reserved for the late evening when the ‘atham’ was given a grand flowery embellishment. The exercise would begin after the sumptuous Onam ‘sadhya’ in homes and folks would gather by evening and rework the ‘atham’ for the finale. Women folks cook and got ready ‘elapams’. The ‘atham’ was covered with ‘thumba’ a local shrub and the ‘elappams’ are deftly enshrouded in the shrub. Folks got ready with primitively made bows and quiver full of arrows. At dusk ‘onapattu’ is accompanied by folks (mostly boys) shooting arrows into the shrouded ‘atham’ to pick out the concealed ‘elappams’. When finally all the ‘elappams’ are retrieved the ‘atham’ is carefully removed off the ground using a suitable kitchen utensil without damaging the layers and left on a sill by the front gate of the house. It stays there till probably the next Onam beaten by weather- sun and rain and slowly withering away.
As every aspect of human life changes over time, so does Onam and the feeling it gives. But something that can be vouched for is the simplicity and freedom from vanity and conceit Onam of yore lend.