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Connecting People to the River

Even after the heat, dust and excitement of the ongoing Chithirai festival settle down next week, Madurai will continue to reverberate with the sounds of the cultural parade that roll down the Masi Streets during the celebrations marking the celestial wedding of Lord Sundareswarar and Goddess Meenakshi.

The only difference this time will be the seriousness of an issue – how to revive Vaigai, the city’s lifeline. The cultural pageant slated for May 12 will have all the necessary elements of colours, creativity and concepts and also push forth an important message. The angst and hassles we as citizens face when our river goes dry and turns into a garbage dumping channel.

There is no point in talking about Vaigai’s glory only in the past tense, says A.Gurunathan, the project director of the long-term Vaigai River Restoration Project initiated by the DHAN Foundation. A step in that direction is the making of the cultural pageant in association with Earth Celebrations, a New York-based non-profit organisation. “To begin with, the idea is to attract, educate, sensitise and mobilise people, especially those who live along the river banks, to not to further ruin the river but to help in its revival,” adds Gurunathan.

The proposed cultural pageant will stretch over three kms from Kamarajar Bridge near Fatima College on Dindigul Road to the A.V Bridge near Goripalayam where the Meenakshi Temple well is located. From 3.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. on this Tuesday afternoon, at least 500 people are likely to join in the colourful procession that will boast of multiple innovative elements, conceptualised by Felicia Young, the Founder and Executive Director of Earth Celebrations.

She has carefully named one of her lead actors in the pageant, the ‘Protectress from Trash’. It is a concept based costume, according to Felicia. Designed by local craftspersons Ravi and Amudha, it is designed in the shape of a giant goddess with 16 arms. Made with eco-friendly items, each of the arms will carry trash like wrappers and plastic bottles and bags to highlight the kind of items that pollute the river and how they should be disposed off properly. It is based on ‘Trash Monster’ that Felicia designed earlier for her theatrical pageant aimed at restoring the species and habitats of the once polluted Hudson River in New York City.

Old timers talk of the golden era when people hunted, fished and lived along the banks of flowing Vaigai but how declining rainfall and release of industrial, bio-medical and domestic waste led to the disappearance of the river. The big cultural pageant will also bring in a giant fish measuring 21 feet in length along with three small fishes to emphasise on the benefits of restoration and release of species into the water.

Bamboo artist Prakash has been working hard to make the perfect outline of the giant fish sculpture that will be covered and decorated on the exterior with plastic bottles and metal cans. For this Felicia has an off-beat idea. She is calling upon volunteers to participate in a fish decorating workshop next week and also sent out appeals to people not to trash their trash and instead drop off the recyclable trash at the DHAN office in Vaidyanathapuram East.

“City people can sign up for various roles and tasks for the procession and thereby be involved in the exercise to bring back their river to life,” she says.

There will also be kavadis designed in the form of nine feet tall temple gopurams highlighting the species of land, water and air and the Vaigai ecosystem. Processionists will also carry water in small pots with a tag stating from where the water has been collected. Each of them will pour the water into a huge kumbham, a clay pot measuring four feet high and three feet in diameter that will be carried on a bullock cart at the end of the procession. And finally the water from the giant kumbham will be poured into the river in a symbolic gesture. To keep the tempo of the parade, there will be performances of Karagattam and Oyilattam en route.

The entire pageant will also get three random stops. At the starting point for the opening ceremony, college students will recite poems and sing devotional songs in praise of the river. At another point, community leaders will be honoured and recognised as river custodians. They will be presented with specially woven sungundi shawls bearing motifs of fish, the symbol of Pandiya kingdom. Batches of women will be drawing kolam at the culminating point of the procession near the temple well.

The District Collector, the Mayor and the Commissioner of Madurai Corporation have given their consent for the cultural pageant. “We have to build a true coalition among people and involve everybody from the policy and decision-makers, the academics and the intellectuals, the experts and the experienced, and to the poorest of the poor people who are often left thinking that they can’t do anything for the benefit of the larger community,” says Felicia.

She has been working for the past 18 months with artisans and students of Fatima and Thiagarajar College to design the restoration pageant artistically and conceptually. She was surprised when students shared their ideas for restoring the Vaigai River with parks, organic shops, fishing, sports, recycling bins, clean public toilets, playgrounds for children along the embankment. “A plastic-free zone and fines for polluters and enforcement formed a part of their dream plan,” she adds.

Felicia has also been interacting with settlers along the river bank and empowering them with the knowledge of cleaning of the river and betterment of the environment. She has roped in Dr.Gita Mehta, Professor of Architecture in University of Columbia and her Social Capital Credits Model wherein people get rewarded for any good work. It is called ‘incentivising’ the community, meaning to give away incentives for effecting social change.

DHAN has selected a dozen ‘river custodians’ and divided the stretch of the river from Kochadai to Viraganoor dam into 12 zones. These individuals representing their respective communities will shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the river by setting up councils later that will implement meaningful actions to rejuvenate Vaigai. They include the dhobis, potters, weavers, kiosk owners, slum dwellers and whoever uses the banks of the river for productive or non-productive purposes along with members of academic institutions, hospitals, temples that border the river.

The cultural pageant is the beginning of a long term effort that will have to continue spontaneously with the help of sensitised people and communities, says Felicia, adding, the same people will later become the river assets. The cultural pageant may be a token action, but DHAN as the catalyst wants to drill the message of involvement and responsibility into all stakeholders.

Though Felicia’s art for social change advocacy projects and cultural pageants have proved to be a success in the U.S, she is not sure of the impact here in Madurai. She says she is counting on the ‘Million Dollar Arm’ factor! (the Hollywood film where things somehow come together and fall into place for a sports agent saving his career and he learns the valuable lesson of team work).

For an earlier story on Earth Celebrations, >click here

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 6:12:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/connecting-people-to-the-river/article7161962.ece

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