Back in the 1980s, when V. Saleena was at school, Oppana was beginning to get popular at the State School Art Festival and she recalls dancing in front of big crowds. Three decades later, when her daughter Lulu Sherin is gearing up for the Oppana competition in the HSS category on Thursday, this traditional dance of Muslim women has become one of the most popular events of the festival.

The biggest crowd of the 53rd festival was there on Wednesday night to watch the Oppana competition in the HS category at the MSP Parade Ground. “There must have been at least 15,000 spectators,” said M. Vinod, stage committee chairman of the festival. “It seemed as if the entire Malappuram was moving to MSP Ground since evening, just to watch Oppana.”

Little wonder, really. For Oppana is particularly popular in Malappuram and Kozhikode. One recalls more than 20,000 people watching Oppana at the Kozhikode festival two years ago. “Yes, it is in Malabar that we get the biggest crowds for Oppana, but it is becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the State too,” said U.V. Mohammed Ali, who has trained Oppana teams for 21 years at the festival.

“Teachers like me from Kozhikode are training students across the State,” he added.

Fittingly, it was at the Kozhikode festival of 1976 that Oppana made its debut. “In the early days, Oppana at the school festivals was not as refined as we see it today,” said Mohammed Ali. “It was more cinematic, in costume and movements. I brought in the all-white costumes and jewellery worn by Muslim women dancers of Oppana,” he said. Sadiq Mathottam, another veteran Oppana teacher from Kozhikode, remembers watching beautiful young women of Kuttichira staging Oppana at the weddings of rich Muslim families. “Oppana used to be popular those days only among Muslims, but the school festival has taken it to the masses and girls of all regions gladly learn it,” he said. “Our ancient art forms like Oppana have survived only because of the festival,” he added.