Onam, the annual harvest festival of Kerala, is life’s biggest leveller which brings families and friends together, believes top actors from the Malayalam film industry.
And what’s not to love about the lavish vegetarian feast, sadhya, served on a banana leaf?
Gulf News tabloid! caught up with Kerala’s beloved stars including Nyla Usha, Poornima Indrajith, Nivin Pauly, Tovnino Thomas and Mithun Ramesh to find out how they are celebrating Onam this year and their precious memories around this festival.
Excerpts from our conversations with ...
Actor Nivin Pauly
His Malayalam hits: ‘Premam’, ‘Action Hero Biju’, ‘Jacobinte Swargarajyam’ and ‘Thattathin Marayathu’.
Onam’s significance: “Unity”
His most precious memories about this festival over the years: “Every Onam is special to me. I always celebrate this festival with my family and dear ones. Onam is all about getting together and celebrating under one roof.
Sadhyas: “Who doesn’t love sadhya? These days, I get to eat a sadhya only during Onam. Out of all the dishes, avial, pulliisheri and Kaalan are my absolute favourites. For deserts, I gravitate towards adda prathaman and semiya payasam.
His hopes for 2020: “Every year, I usually celebrate Onam with my family and I ensure that I am with them. Unfortunately, this year I am not in Kerala to celebrate Onam. I will be in Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival. My film ‘Moothon’ will premiere on September 11.”
Actor, model and radio presenter Nyla Usha
You know her from: ‘Porinju Mariam Jose’, ‘Deewanji Moola Grandprix’ and ‘Punyalan Agarbattis’.
Onam’s significance: “It’s a celebration of togetherness. Every state has its own festival that brings families together. For us Malayalis, that festival is Onam. I was raised in a joint family in a tharavad [ancestral home] where I had my immediate family, grandparents and my great grandmother around me. Onam invariably brings back memories of all of us getting together, wearing fine clothes and ladies being busy around the kitchen. I remember our relatives dropping in with new clothes and if we children were very lucky, we would get a second round of new clothes. It’s also a time where we laid flower carpets in our front yard. All my cousins and I went out to pluck flowers from our garden and we were so fixated about our individual designs. I remember the light showers during thiruonam and I remember being told that it was how our nature responded to our festival. Onam signifies abundance too. There’s lots of food, fun and laugher.”
Her most precious memories about this festival over the years: “My cousins who studied in Bengaluru used to come to Kerala during the Onam holidays and that annual family re-unions were precious. My grandfather used to put up a giant swing with the thickest ropes on the highest branch during this festival. Swinging on it was one of the highlights of Onam. I also remember the smell of new clothes and going to the temple together with my cousins. Onam also signified our first holiday break after our first team in school.”
Sadhyas: “I love sadhyas. As children, we were the first set of people to be served the feast on the banana leaf. We used to sit on the floor in one line and wait to be served one curry after the other. I am a self-titled expert at sadhyas. There’s an order in which our curries our served during sadhyas. We begin with salt and then start serving from the left corner. The curries served first are sweet, then a mix of spicy and sweet and then followed by the savoury curries. I am also great at cleaning up the banana leaf and used to make sure that I never wasted any food. My grandfather used to compliment me in front of all my cousins and those were my brag rights. Out of all the dishes served during sadhya, I love kaalan, the curry made out of sweet pumpkin and payaru [lentils]. I am also partial to the jaggery payasams, not the milky ones.”
Her hopes for 2020: “Since I work in the media industry, we are busy re-creating Onam in Dubai. When you move away from Kerala, we are immensely nostalgic and we love to re-create that festive Onam atmosphere in Dubai. We play onam-related games with our radio listeners. In 2020, I hope I win more hearts from the work I do — be it on radio, television and films. I hope this year brings a lot of love in my life.”
Actor Tovino Thomas
You know him from: ‘Oru Kuprasidha Payyanm’, ‘Lucifer’, ‘Mayaanadhi’ and ‘Theevandi’.
Onam’s significance: “Your undivided time with family and friends exclusively”
His most precious memories about this festival over the years: “Every year, I am home to celebrate Onam with my family and friends. Due to my hectic schedule all year around, I rarely get time to spend time with my loved ones at home. So during Onam, I make sure that I keep myself absolutely free. This festive time is set aside for my loved ones. I consider this my private time.”
Sadhyas: “Honestly, I am not a huge fan of vegetarian food. Although, I enjoy it on that day, I am not very keen about trying all those veg dishes. Out of the lavish spread, I like the sweet payasams at the end of the meal.”
Actor and radio presenter Mithun Ramesh
Onam’s significance: “The whole concept of Onam is that everyone is equal. This is one of the few festivals that transcends religions. Onam is a cultural festival, not a religious one and it signifies togetherness.”
His most precious moments about this festival over the years: “My family lives in the ancestral home that has been around for generations, but all my aunts live around that home in the same plot. So we all get together for Onam. Even our neighbours join in and we have sadhya at the same place.”
His take on sadhyas: “Can’t you tell by looking at me? [laughs] Even when it’s not Onam, I crave it. And Dubai is the only place where you can get sadhyas at midnight too. I often attend a wedding just to eat the sadhyas. I love kootucurry and paal paaysam with adda. In Trivandrum, we also have a broken rice payasam, which is simply divine. We don’t get it often here. There’s even a restaurant in Kochi that keeps a payasam especially for me in their fridge so that I can eat them. My wife makes a mean paaladda payasam and nurukarri payasam [broken rice payasam].
His hopes for 2020: “In 2018, floods devastated Kerala and many saw their life savings and homes eroding. The Onam celebrations were muted that year. Although we saw floods this year, we will still celebrate Onam to keep the positive spirit going. Onam is all about togetherness and my radio station is having a massive sadhya for at least 1,000 listeners. We are going to step it up in 2020, keeping Expo 2020 in mind.”
Actress, model, TV host and fashion designer of fashion label Pranaah Poornima Indrajith
You know her from: ‘Virus’ and yet-to-release ‘Thuramukham’.
Onam’s significance: “Onam is all about togetherness and about families coming together. This is a rare instance where people who are hooked to their digital devices for connectivity come together person to spend time quality time with each other.”
Her most precious memory: “It’s a very busy time for as a designer. I work on giving a contemporary take to Kerala saris so that it’s more accessible to the youth and others through Pranaah designs.
Sadhyas: “I love sadhyas and I can’t wait to have one on Onam day. I love everything about this feast. Right now, I have been asked on a restricted diet due to a medical condition, but I am keenly looking forward to eating my first sadhya this Onam.”
Her hopes for 2020: “The devastating floods in 2018 in Kerala underlined our resilience in getting back to our feet. But it also made us aware that we can’t limit ourselves to digital and social-media activism. We need to act on our good thoughts for a better tomorrow. I am hoping for a better tomorrow. I am also looking forward to my cinematic comeback with Rajeev Ravi’s ‘Thuramukham’.”
Salim Ahamed, director of Adaminte Makan Abu and And The Oscar Goes To
Significance of Onam: “My childhood memories is all about collecting flowers from our backyard … It’s another matter if there are still flowers around to pluck. I will always cherish the memory of watching the film ‘My Dear Kuttichathan’ that released during Onam.”
WHAT IS ONAM?
It’s an annual harvest festival celebrated in Kerala. Based on the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, the festival is celebrated to honour King Mahabali, whose spirit is believed to visit Kerala at the time of Onam and bless homes.
During this festive period, Malayali men and women wear ethnic wear including Kerala saris (beige linen sari with gold border) and mundu with gold border. Boat races called Vallam Kali, floral carpets laid out and music called Onavillu are also big features of the festival.
Though a Hindu festival, non-Hindu communities of Kerala participate in Onam celebrations considering it a cultural festival which culminates in a feast called sadhya.