Field notes from my micro-context1
As a child, I would always wonder why my house did not look as 'clean' as my Nair neighbour's. Similarly, I always wondered why none of us Christians would look as 'authentic' as our Nair friends when we attended Malayalee Samajam Onam programmes. Jokes/comments such as 'Christians2 do not take bath regularly', 'they do not know many Onam recipes', 'these women do not get the perfect triangle when they wrap a veshti around their waist' - so on and so forth were consistently circulated (and are still circulated) in diaspora circles. So even if someone enthusiastically participates in Onam, perfects the art of wearing veshti and mundu, prepares every possible 'pure' vegetarian Onam recipe, claiming authenticity is still a different ball game. I also realized that we were not the only people who were subjected to such 'agni-pariksha' to prove our authenticity. There were others too. Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Ezhavas were also subjected to such humour killings3.
However, I still celebrated Onam. For me, and I bet, for many others, Malayalee identity was always interwoven with a grandiose celebration of Onam. What constitutes such a celebration in a spatial context outside Kerala? It is a replication of every possible 'spectacle' which is associated with Onam. This includes, a huge pookalam (the size, shape and width of the floral decoration really matters!), a swing in your huge courtyard, a huge hall where people can sit and feast on Onam delicacies (censored in their content and aesthetics!), a huge tharavadu courtyard where the ultra-feminine caste-womenfolk can perform thiruvathira, so on and so forth. This is combined with Pulikali where bodies of non-Nair Shudra men get plastered with bright yellow and orange shades. They are personified but agency less lions that are hunted down by the King and his men. Each of this combined with cinematic dance, mimicry shows and light music gets replicated on the Malayalee Samajam stage. The stage looks very evidently like a Nair courtyard! The performers come from all the sections. We perform Brahmanical heteronormative patriarchy.
The picture that says it all: depicts a 'tharavadu', traditional Nair joint family home, with women in the 'Kerala saree' performing the 'thiruvathira'; also shows girls arranging the 'pookalam', festive floral design, in the courtyard and a swing!
Now, going back to my question, what constitutes Onam in a spatial context outside Kerala? I think I should rephrase my answer. It constitutes the replication of every possible 'Savarna spectacle' which is associated with Onam. At this juncture, I would like to bring a few insights from Ajith Kumar's article on Onam which appeared in Uttarakalam. He clearly points out the fact that Dalits have over the years evolved their own practices of celebrating Onam. He mentions that the Gandhian and Left anti-Onam discourse attacks consumerism and upholds moralistic austerity. It also laments the bitter death of the good old days.