Nuns’ Onam dance sparks debate in Kerala
Kochi: Kerala’s harvest festival Onam has turned into a cultural battleground since 2016.
While the festival has been celebrated by virtually all communities as one of the secular milestones of Malayali culture, there is now an attempt to give Onam a distinctly (upper-caste) Hindu flavor.
So, as Keralites of all shades sat down to sadhya (banquet) on August 4, a video of a group of Catholic nuns performing the thiruvathirakkali (a dance form) sparked a virulent debate on social media platforms.
For the uninitiated, the thiruvathirakkali or kaikottikali is a dance performed by women – a prominent part of Onam celebrations in the state. Women traditionally dress in the kasavu mundu, and dance in a circle to songs praising the glory and prosperity of the state.
In the video doing the rounds on Onam day, however, 10 nuns are seen dressed in the traditional white habit and black head scarf, performing the dance around a pookkalam (floral carpet).
This seemingly harmless 45-second video was picked up by supporters of the Hindu Right, who criticized it as an attempt to appropriate a ‘Hindu’ festival.
“Kerala Church is in a spree to appreciate everything Hindu,” wrote one user on Twitter while sharing the video.
Others saw this as a “dangerous trend,” substantiating their “conclusions” by posting images of a pookkalam with an image of Jesus at the centre.
“Christians will appreciate Hindu rituals at the beginning, they will soon claim it as theirs,” others claimed. They saw this as a “grand strategy of the Church” to hijack “everything that is Hindu.”
“Gradually these missionaries replace shiva with yeshu n make it yeshuvithara kalli,” wrote one user.
Even a columnist with the publication Swarajya (self rule) got into the act, writing, “Onam lamps with a cross on top, priests dressed in mundu n w a tilak, church elephants, Jesus Suprabhatam…soul vultures are everywhere.”
However, right-wing efforts at re-describing the narrative of Onam have not gone down well with many others. In 2016, for instance, BJP National President Amit Shah posted wishes for Vamana Jayanthi instead of Onam.
Following Shah’s tweet last year, for instance, Malayalis of all shades went after him with the hashtag #PoMoneShaji, and warned him not to meddle with the Onam legend.
Even Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan got involved, calling for an apology from Shah.
“By eulogising Vamana and denigrating Mahabali, BJP national president Amit Shah has humiliated Kerala and our festival Onam. The belief behind Onam is of equality and egalitarianism and it is a festival celebrated by all cutting across caste, creed, religion and other barriers,” Pinarayi said in a statement.
On Onam day too, Twitter users reacted sharply to the attempts to question the nuns’ celebrations.
Reacting to Shefali Vaidyar’s tweet on the nuns video, journalist Anna M M Vetticad asked why the BJP was angry that Onam was celebrated in Kerala across people’s religious preferences.
“Why is #BJP-#RSS so angry that all communities in #Kerala celebrate #Onam? Are they jealous or genuinely incapable of understanding harmony?” she wrote.
Others like senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and Rahul Easwar also celebrated the video, calling it a reflection of Kerala’s “pluralist culture.”