Onam celebrations abroad are a chance for Malayalis to reconnect with Kerala

Onam’s well and truly over for us in Kerala. But for Malayali expatriates living in all corners of the globe, the celebrations have, apparently, just begun. Be it in Dubai, Vienna, United States, or England, Malayalis abroad make the most of Onam celebrations to reconnect with their homeland and celebrate their cultural heritage.

“Everyone looks forward to the Onam celebration as it reminds us of the celebrations back at home. These events are also a great networking opportunity to meet fellow Malayalis,” says Ajit Puthiyavettle of the Malayalee Association of Southern Connecticut, which has over 100 families on its rolls. Neena Philip, cultural coordinator of the nearby Kerala Association of New Jersey (KANJ), a fraternity of over 1,000 Malayalis, adds: “This is one time of the year that Malayalis abroad, religious preferences aside, take the most effort to preserve and recreate the spirit of and the traditions of Kerala. In part, I feel, it is also to keep the interest alive for the new generation.”

For many expatriate Malayalis, Onam is perhaps the biggest of the annual events that they get-together to celebrate. Renjini Mary Joseph, who lives in Johannesburg, says: “Onam is a big deal for all Malayalis across South Africa. At the very least, most friends and family meet up and organise a small sadya. The Onam functions organised by the associations are also well received and are generally sold out.”

Onam abroad doesn’t necessarily happen on Thiruvonam Day. Instead, most associations usually celebrate the occasion on the weekends leading up to and after the big day. Athira Jayadevan, who lives in Kalamazoo, a small town in Michigan, says: “The 10 or so Malayali families here will be celebrating Onam this weekend with a pot luck sadya. We coordinate in advance on who brings what. It’s also one of the few occasions we get to dress up in Kerala attire. We also invite other Indian families to the event too.” Most of the smaller events happen in people’s home while the bigger associations rent out halls for the occasion.

All of the expatriates say that they don’t just get to eat one sadya for Onam but several sadyas, all thanks to the celebrations organised by different associations on different days! Vinod A.L. of the Cambridge Malayali Association, one of the many such associations in the United Kingdom, says: “Onam celebrations started a couple of weeks ago and will probably go on well into next month. Our celebrations are on September 21. Last weekend a local Malayali restaurant, Rice Boat, served up Onam sadya, so we treated a few of our British friends to lunch and they had a great time eating with their hands!”

Many of the larger Malayali associations, however, go all out to celebrate the festive season with mega events that comprise star shows and cultural programmes by members and their families and also games. For example, Onam celebrations in Gauteng Province in South Africa generally feature a celebrity from Kerala. Last year, it was actor Jagadeesh. This year, on September 21, playback singer Rimi Tomy is all set to entertain. Detroit Malayalee Association, meanwhile, had a concert by Kavalam Sreekumar for its celebration on September 14, while KANJ’s event featured singer Franco, violinist Manoj George and a live orchestra.

Planned in advance

Planning for the events generally begin at least a couple of months in advance. “People work in committees to organise everything from venue and programmes to food and tickets. We also start practice and planning of the cultural programmes in advance. Most dance teams, for instance, get costumes stitched or brought in from India. So, it’s quite lot of work. The Mahabali costume, for instance, is partly rented from theatrical companies here and partly acquired by people who travel to and from India. On a lighter note, the gentleman who takes up the role is prepared in advance as well. The ladies here feed him and make sure he is nice and fat for the function!” says Renjini.

The expatriates say that the highlight of these events is always the sadya . “They are either pot luck (for the smaller ones) or catered by local restaurants. In keeping with the essence of Onam, it’s always vegetarian. People drive miles just to eat it!” says Athira.

The celebrations

Essentially, all the celebrations seem to follow more or less the same format. There will be a Maveli and pookkalam (using local flowers). Members and their children take part in various cultural programmes such as Thiruvathirakkali, Pulikkali, cinematic and classical dance, Malayalam songs, skits, mimicry, fancy dress, Malayalam poetry recitation and so on. There are also Onam games such as uriyadi and tug-o-war.

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