Over the weekend, I attended an Onam festival conducted by one of the Malayalee organizations in the Chicago area. We had a very busy morning that day at the end of which I had a pounding headache. I was tempted to skip the program because of that, and also the introvert in me felt that I wouldn’t enjoy being in the middle of about 600-1000 people who spoke a language that I barely understood, and celebrated something which I could not relate all that well.

However, there were commitments – people whom we knew would feel happy to see me there, and I also had to be the driver for a group of dancers who would be decked in fine, Bharatanatyam costumes. It would have been hard for them to drive by themselves dressed like that. The festival was at a high-school 30 miles away in the city – which also meant I drive. A couple of ibuprofens and a nap later, my headache and excuses evaporated. I decided that it was better to go out than sit at home, watch TV as the day darkened to night. Staying at home on a weekend particularly during the darkening twilight hour always seems like a dull prospect.

We arrived at the high school, and the festive atmosphere was immediately obvious. A group of men and boys were in procession playing the Kerala drums (Chenda) . I wanted to see the procession and take a few snaps – but this was Chicago, and I had to find parking. By the time I parked, the procession was over.

The auditorium where the cultural programs were held was pretty crowded. A lot of men (I guess more thanI have seen elsewhere) were in a half-traditional attire – i.e. a western shirt and a dhoti/veshti in traditional Keralite colors – off-white with gold border. Women and young girls were also dressed in saris, and half-saris with the same traditional Keralite colors. Sounds of Malayalam filled the air. There was standing room only, and I stood in the back – feeling very conscious that everyone probably expected me to know Malayalam and I knew squat. However, while a part of me felt out of place, a part of me strangely felt comfortable – perhaps it was the down to earth hospitality that our friends showed us when we arrived. But the real reason became more apparent once the cultural programs began.

The first program seemed like a very traditional Onam thing, where a group ladies dressed in traditional attire, each carrying a tray performed a kummi stle dance. What struck me was the song – it was in Anandabhairavi raga, and suddenly I realized how beautiful the Malayalam language is! I couldn’t follow a single word, but each of then seemed coated with honey and sugar. The song put me right at home. It was just like any Carnatic song with folksy touch in Anandabhairavi – very “homely”, always a winner.

Then a very little girl came and sang a couple of film songs – a Malayalam one and a Hindi one. Following this was a dance program which had a collage of classical styles – Mohiniattam , Bharatanatyam and even a little taste of Kathakali. The first two was under the backdrop of a familiar Purandaradasa song in Kannada.

A couple of semi-classical items followed, this time performed to Tamil film songs with a classical base. This was then followed by a presentation from the group I chauffeured. They did a classical Bharatanatyam piece where the song was in Telugu set to various Carnatic ragas. This was followed an extensive dance presentation celebrating India via 3 dance styles – Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, and folk (impressive costumes!). At the end of this, we realized it was getting very late, we had a long drive back, and so we had to leave.

During all this, I realized that this may be a celebration of Kerala, but it is also a celebration of India (perhaps mostly South India), and its diversity. That is why I felt right at home. I was glad to be a part of it, and I felt enlightened in more than one way. Yes, the people there spoke a language that I did not understand, and their food and customs were different from mine. But it did not matter at all when there is so much in common. We can either focus on the few differences between us, use them as a reason complain, ridicule, and come to blows; or we can focus on the many things that are common between us and celebrate life together. The choice seems obvious to me. In the end, I felt that I could relate to everything there because their culture is similar to mine, just as Indian as mine. I felt connected.

I also marvel at the openness, and tolerance exhibited by the Malayalee community here in Chicago. In a festival that specifically celebrated their tradition, they were being so inclusive, celebrating other languages, and other cultures of India. I salute them for this!

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