In a land, far away from the streetlights and skyscrapers, a lot further away from tight timelines and packed schedules, came a day when the gods had a strict timeline and a packed schedule to adhere to.
With classrooms abuzz on a Sunday morning, with the roads getting jammed before 7 a.m an with more make up than I have seen at my largest shoot, the largest congregation of performers gathered in the wee hours of the morning and got to work. Putting on eyeliner for each other, draping a saree with pleats of perfection and painting with the strokes of a master, these men, annually dress up as gods and perform at the Atham festival for the rest of the day after which they proceed with the band baaja waalas and local dancers to the roads of Thripunithura (the town close to Kochi where the festival happens, the mela and dressing up starts at the local school, it’s classrooms and grounds)
The festival is the mark of the onset of Onam, the largest and most revered festival in Kerela and it celebrates gods, just like every other festival in India does. But this one, doesn’t just worship them, it takes the party one step higher. It emulates them, from dressing to enactments right out of mythological books, from characters to expressions, I don’t think I will ever again witness a fully grown man, about the height of Michael Jordan, gracefully smile and give me a look full of naughty humour that would put the most famous pin up girl to shame.
In between the madness of shifting cities and shifting my entire existence, Sindhur and I took out some time to go to Kerela to watch the Atham festival. He thought I’d be fussy and wouldn’t like the muddy grounds or the dirt and sweat but I lapped it up like a giddy child, excited to once again visit a mela (fair) which was far more spectacular than any I had seen previously. And being my usual adventurous, up for anything self, helped in more ways than one, because I shamelessly chatted with all the boys, got amazing pictures with them and even got the pot-bellied tiger men to wiggle their bellies for the video camera to make it look like the tigers were roaring. While the entire morning is all about dressing up and then performances, the evening is more of a fair with cotton candy, musical rides with psychedelic lights and young boys in their ‘skinny as a celebrity’ jeans worn well below their butt cracks.
One of the main attractions(to me) of the fair was a Stunt rider named Raj.
Raj is from Patna but over his years of being a travelling performer, he has picked up Malayalam, Tamil and a few other languages. He has even lent a few stunts to Bollywood films. “I can make any car jump, it takes years to learn that and we have to go for regular medical check-ups so that problems such as Blood Pressure arising means we cannot work”. On being asked what he liked about working in South India he responds, “I like South India, the men here don’t harass women, they respect and treat them as equals, but I miss my paaya and Tandoori chicken, I can’t eat a dosa a day.”
Well, I ate more than a dosa a day during my stay in Kerela and I even walked all around a town that wasn’t used to seeing women in western wear in a head to toe gold sequinned ensemble and not one man leched or hooted. They made their peace with just looking and probably thinking to themselves, our festival has become popular near and far, look there’s a creature from Mars who has attended this year.
I hope you guys do get a chance to experience local joys such as this trip I had, we’re a nation brimming with the most beautiful moments, just waiting to be captured.
Photos by Sindhur Reddy
Wearing: Sequinned palazzos: Marquee By Vero Moda
Take A Bow