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My Onam with a Padayani troupe from Kerala
- Nandita Prabhu, Chennai

September 14, 2010

Onam was always different when I was a child. The spirit of Onam was in the air. As kids, we used to go plucking wild flowers and would design flower carpets: every Malayalee home was filled with aromas of pappadams, paladas and banana chips; we kids got loads of new clothes and ten days of school holidays.

But from the time I have made Chennai my home, I seem to have forgotten to bring the spirit of Onam with me from Kerala. This year, my Onam was different, more colourful, and I could feel the dormant spirit of Onam waking up as I spent a day watching and interacting with a few artistes who came all the way from a village called Kadamanitta in Kerala to demonstrate their ritual dance form 'Padayani' at Dakshinchitra, Chennai.

They were all youngsters in their early twenties who loved their village and were proud to be part of a rich cultural heritage. Their passion while they rehearsed and performed their art and the faith while they invoked Goddess Bhadrakali would move any onlooker. They shared with me the rituals which formed their major festival 'The Padayani Maholsavam.' This is a ten day festival commemorating the victory of good over evil, when Devi in her most ferocious form slays the demon Darikasura, and all the other Gods deck themselves with decorated masks made from areca nut leaves to pacify the furious Devi. The whole village participates in the festival. While it is the men alone who will learn and perform this art, this art is offered to the women who are considered to be the embodiment of the Divine Mother.

On day one, the Devi is invited and accompanied from the sanctum to the temple grounds along with "chootu" or fire. On day two, Devi is again invoked with the drumming of Pachathappu, a percussion instrument which is played before heating. From day three to day seven, Padayani is performed with various kolams or masks and this is a "vayipadu" or a thanksgiving by various devotees who offer this dance to appease the Devi for granting them various boons. Day six is also a day of gratitude to Nature which is symbolically represented by hoisting a palm tree trunk in front of the Devi. Day eight is the day of 'Valiya Padayani' when all the kolams are performed throughout the night and lasts till the next day.

Day nine is the day of rest for the whole village, when the Devi is led back to her sanctum and the whole village sleeps. This is called 'Palliyurakkam.' On day ten, they perform 'Pakal padayani' without masks. They perform items like Thavadi (performed in a straight line) and pula nrittam (performed in a circle, more like a harvest dance). On the tenth evening is a grand procession, which is accompanied by various other folk art forms like kavadi, amman kudam etc.

The passion and faith with which these youngsters spoke about their ritual art made me want to visit their village and be part of this interesting artistic tradition. For them, Kadamanitta was their temple, art their religion and their bodies mere instruments in the hands of Kadamanitta Bhagavathy.

My Onam was special. After watching their performance, I felt a satisfaction, greater than having an Onasadya and Kerala's famous Palada.

Nandita Prabhu is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher based in Chennai.

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