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A festival that celebrates human emotions

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Manohar Devadoss relives with nostalgiathe sights that overwhelmed him

Chithirai festival, as pictured by Manohar Devadoss
Chithirai festival, as pictured by Manohar Devadoss

I spent the first eight years of my life in large houses with gardens and unconstrained, open views. Then in 1945, our family moved into a tiny house at Madurai – pat on the pavement of the crowded North Masi Street, very near the junction of the West Masi Street. Initially, I felt claustrophobic and unhappy but soon came to realize that this house offered certain magical aspects that the earlier larger houses had not.

I found that the part of the street where I lived was a virtual stage where one metaphorical play or another was enacted.

For instance, early in the morning of Vinayakar Chathurthi, the pavement right up to our door step became the studio for ‘clay sculptors’ who created exquisite statues of Pillaiyar – large and small, all differing from each other.

Then there were theru koothus (street dramas), live recitals of Carnatic and film music and frequent performances of folk dances of all kinds, where women who were normally restrained, danced freely, vigorously and with abandon. There were political orations and sermons by Pentecostal preachers.

There were processions galore. The only time I saw the Mahatma was from the comfort of our house upstairs, when he went on a slow procession in an open car his bare, fair head aglow in the sun’s rays. But among all the countless processions that went past our house, the most important ones were of course, those of the annual Chithrai Festival, celebrating the wedding of Meenakshi Amman the presiding Goddess of Madurai, with Siva as Sundareswarar.

During the twelve-day celebration, each day in the forenoon and after nightfall, processional deities were taken on grand silver vahanams –bull, elephant, lion and swan among them.

These vahanams were mounted on huge palanquins carried by twenty or so sturdy men.

Blaring brass blow-horns, rumbling drums, proud elephants bedecked with gold-spangled head-gears, preening camels with elaborately brocaded drapes, piercing nathaswaram/ music with ringing thavil percussion and a multitude of street hawkers were all part of the processions.

I liked the late-night ones.

The palanquins were illuminated by a host of flaming torches carried by torch-bearers.

In the golden light of the dancing flames the gleaming silver vahanams and the grandly attired deities took on another-worldly mystical beauty.

When I was ten, I asked my father about the female deity on a palanquin that was apart from the couple on another bejewelled one. He smiled and advised me to ask our neighbours and my teacher. Their answers were varied.


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