Another Vishu, the relevance and the need to keep tradition alive

Yellow spells joy and prosperity. And that's why Vishu, the Malayalam New Year, has a lot of yellow in it: The ‘konnapoo', gold and ‘kasavu', the ripe cucumber, jackfruit (the insides of course, silly!), the golden colour of the ‘uruli' and ‘kindi' (bell metal polished, polished and polished to stand in for gold) that is used for the ‘kani'.

Agrarian community

Once upon a time, the number of coconut trees and acres of paddy fields a family had were the criteria that placed it in a certain slot on the prosperity graph. The feudal regime certainly had its democratic moments when workers were offered clothes and money on Vishu day. It was an agrarian community's welcoming of the new year with hopes, prayers and plenty of essentials, like clothes, vegetables, fruits and of course money. “We had new clothes only for Onam and Vishu in those days and food was simpler, only one cuisine, our own. Payasams were meant to be made only for festivals and birthdays, not every now and then as we do now,” reminisces Radhambika Pillai, 73, a home maker.

Over the decades, post land reform laws, filling of paddy fields, hike of wages and root wilt disease in coconut trees, this festival morphed into just another traditional ritual with most Malayalis religiously preparing a ‘kani' that is as authentic as possible, lest posterity forget how to celebrate Vishu. “In the old days, what we kept as kani was grown in our own land. It's not so anymore, but tradition is something that has to be passed on to the next generation, so we shop for the best looking cucumber, jackfruit etc. I only hope a day won't come when we will have to use all plastic fruits and vegetables for the ‘kani',” laughs Valsala Vijayakumar, based in the city, but who had a rural upbringing. With the water table having gone down, the konnapoo flowers very much earlier now and by mid-April, the best of the season is done. So we make do with what's left on the konna.

'Vishukkaineettam'

The joy factor is, to be frank, not all encompassing, as most families find it difficult to get together, especially those who work outside the State. So the feel-good factor takes over, with kids visualising the amount of ‘Vishukkaineettam' they will get from sundry uncles and aunts. Groups of kids hardly assemble together for Vishu now as the one and two-child norms rule. Cousins who live far away often do not relate with one another as common interests are few and far between. So, friends matter more. The social scene has indeed changed from the time grandmothers presided over the household. We seek personal material joy more than happy relationships that only cheer you up.

So, in consumerist Kerala, Vishu is one more excuse to load the household with goods and clothes, the discount mela beckoning. The ‘spirit' of Vishu as in all other festivals, gets very physical from the abstract mode.

“Festivals and celebrations could be enjoyed more when our lifestyle was Spartan. In today's epicurean culture, when every day is a celebration in most households, where's the relevance of festivals from a food point of view? Cooking is a chore that most people try to avoid and so eating out is resorted to, that the family has some time to chat (or watch TV). It has shrunk to just the traditional rituals. I hope that will not be dispensed with,” hopes Govindan Kutty, an NRI who is in Kerala for Vishu.

Commercial circuit

One solace is that festivals will never be allowed to die by the commercial circuit, tradition or no tradition. For what will the discount mela be tagged with, otherwise? We have many more festivals than we did ten years ago. The grand ‘unity in diversity', the cultural oneness we enjoy as a nation, has been extended to ‘Akshayathritheeya' and ‘Karva Chauth', North Indian festivals that have gold as the theme! We religiously celebrate them by buying gold. But most of us do not know that North Indians do ‘pujas' on that day, besides buying gold.

Happy Vishu and may you see the best kani ever!