Festivals by their very nature are meant to largely showcase religious sentiment and bring together people of a similar faith and belief. In all the feverish merriment we often forget that as much as a festival is inclusive, it also excludes people who do not subscribe to the same dogma. Onam, Kerala’s annual harvest festival, is a heartening example of how a celebration of plenty, peace and prosperity can transcend the barriers of religion, caste and ethnicity.
Greeted with as much joy in churches as it is in temples, the various elements of the celebrations, from the food and floral decorations to the processional re-enactment of the legendary king Mahabali’s visit, are testimony to the spirit of this festival. There is no escaping the infectious zeal that pervades the air during Onam and Dubai’s social calendar is dotted with a number of celebratory events.
As part of their Onam 2012 programme, the Federation of Kerala Colleges Alumni will hold a pookkalam contest on September 14 at the Millennium High School Auditorium. A Grand Onam celebration on the 21st of the month at the Shaikh Rashid Auditorium follows, with Onasadya and a variety of cultural programmes presented by entertainers from Kerala.
Another association, the All Kerala Colleges Alumni Forum, is hosting a pookkalam competition on the same day at the Etisalat Academy in Al Ghusais, along with cultural programmes by member colleges.
But if this is your first Onam in the city and you are not a member of a club or any one of the dozen Malayali associations in the city, a good starting point would be the day-long festivities at the Al Nasr Leisureland, tickets for which are priced at Dh40. “We are celebrating Onam on September 14 and will kick-start the day at 7am with the pookkalam competition that carries on until 10am. This will be followed with Onasadya from 11am until 3.30pm and an evening of cultural delights,” says Rajagopalan Nair, General Convener of Onam Celebrations at the club. The Onasadya is a vegetarian spread with 24 dishes and the evening activities include performances by the United Malayali Association, a troupe of six playback singers flown down from Kerala with the likes of Vivekanand, Pramila, Rahman, and Abhirami and a special performance from veteran dancer Shamna Kassim.
“This year we are expecting to host 5,000 people celebrating Onam at Al Nasr Leisureland. I’ve been running the event for the last ten years,” Nair explains, “and each year the popularity for the festival within the Indian community is increasing.”
Another popular venue for the Onam celebrations is the India Club in Oud Metha, where celebrations are being held next Friday. The club’s general manager, Bharat Chachara, says the festival has been reaching out to all expatriate Indians in the UAE for well over a decade. “Although we cover every Indian festival in the calendar, Onam is always a popular one. It’s not just the Keralites that take part in our Onam festival,” he says. “Our diverse Indian membership means a lot of non-Keralites like being involved in Onam because of the exotic food, interesting dances and unique processions. For instance, our pookkalam design leader is Catholic,” he says.
Some highlights this year include the Mahabali procession with the Chendamelam drum ensemble, a musical programme by Lekha Ajay of Kairali TV fame, and of course an Onasadya. Some of the lip-smacking treats are carrot and beetroot thoran, koottukari (raw banana, yam and chickpeas curry), kaalan (pineapple curry in yoghurt) and olan (a pumpkin and bean curry).
“Onam is one of the many Indian festivals celebrated by the India Club and is an opportunity for many non-Keralites to get a glimpse of the culture and cuisine of this state,” says Chachara. Onam celebrations at the India Club are open to club members for Dh40 and their guests for Dh50.
If you are a hard-core foodie and want traditional fare on a banana leaf, book a table at any of the city’s many restaurants that offer a mean Onasadya. Palm Grove at the Marco Polo Hotel, Deira, has a four-day long food festival from Tuesday to Thursday with Onasadya on the 29th and regular sadya on the remaining two days. At Dh50 per head, it’s a steal.
Other sadya venues include Aryas restaurant in Bur Dubai, with its 21-dish sadya; Travancore Kitchen, Karama, with its three-day 24-dish sadya festival; and Nalukettu Restaurant, Al Ghusais, which is going all out from August 29 to 31 with its special 25-dish sadya. Regular haunts such as Dakshin, Lotus Hotel, Calicut Paragon, Karama and Kairali at Ramee Royal in Bur Dubai should only leave you spoilt for choice.
— With inputs from Thomas Billinghurst, Features Writer