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25 September 2017Last updated
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Features | Reportage

Friday celebrates Onam with a pookalam

Shreeja Ravindranathan finds out about how Malayalis across the UAE will say it with flowers as they make traditional floral designs or Pookalams to celebrate the harvest festival Onam

Shreeja Ravindranathan
1 Sep 2017 | 12:00 am

If you had walked into Friday’s studio on August 25, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into a little garden.

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Heaps of orange marigold petals overflowed from plastic bags like molten gold, emerald sepals of zinnia flowers lay scattered on the floor, their freshly-plucked deep magenta petals staining the blue bags they were in a deep pink while creamy tuberose bulbs lay on trays. At one end of the room, sunshine-yellow chrysanthemums, their cluster petals diligently prised apart from their rusty hearts, were piled up on plates. A little away, fine blades of evergreen grass were heaped into little mounds.

There were no bees but the studio buzzed with a nervous energy and enthusiasm.

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Pollen and laughter hung thick in the air as three UAE residents – Prameela Janardhanan Nair, Prabita Rajesh Nair and Catharine Joseph – crouched around an intricate circular pattern on the floor creating a Pookalam – traditional floral designs (similar to the North Indian Rangoli) that are laid out in front of houses to mark the beginning of Kerala’s harvest festival of Onam.

Pookalam, which literally translated from Malayalam means patterns created with flowers, is a quintessential element of Onam and families labour over the design for hours keen to make the most colourful and breathtaking floral carpet.

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As a happy coincidence, August 25 was the first day of the 10-day Onam celebrations when adults and children across the south Indian state of Kerala come together and start laying out intricately designed carpets of flowers outside their houses, and continue doing so for the next nine days up until the main day of the festival, Thiruvonam, which falls on September 4 this year.

Legend has it that the time-honoured custom of pookalam is followed to welcome the mythical King Mahabali who was banished from the world by jealous celestial beings due to his popularity but was granted a wish to meet his beloved subjects once a year on Onam – the harvest festival that mirrors the prosperity that was a hallmark of his reign.

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A lot like rolling out the proverbial red carpet, albeit here a circular kaleidoscopic mat of flowers that bloom endemically across Kerala between August-September, the pookalam signifies prosperity and bounty.

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‘During my childhood in Kerala, children would wake up at day break, shower and head out into the neighbouring fields and gardens with little baskets to collect flowers,’ says 51-year-old Prameela, the matriarch of the recently-formed trio of strangers who came together to create a pookalam from scratch for Friday. ‘During our younger days, flowers were never bought from the stores as they are nowadays.’

‘There was also a set order followed – for each of the 10 days specific flowers had to be used in the floral carpet.’ She rues the fact that with the advent of flats, people no longer have the space to lay elaborate carpets.

However, space crunch or the desert environment has not proved to be a detriment to the Malayalis in the UAE and many other Gulf countries, to celebrate Onam with pomp and splendour. Every year, across the UAE, cultural organisations and social clubs organise grand festivities where apart from pookalams, other traditional cultural elements such as the chendamelam (traditional drummers), Thirudvadira kali (traditional dances during Onam) and payasam (pudding) making competitions are conducted with gusto.

‘Nothing bonds strangers and fosters friendships like brainstorming to come up with an aesthetic yet feasible design and then forcing errant petals to sit pretty inside complex geometric patterns,’ laughs Prabita, a mother of two, deftly arranging flowers in the circular pattern.

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For the 38-year-old, dyed-in-the-wool Dubai resident who was born and raised here, the earliest memory of Onam involves systematically plucking the petals off baskets full of flowers with her friends, while dressed in the traditional gold embroidered skirt and blouse ensemble giggling as they helped their parents make pookalams. ‘Today, my daughter enjoys the same experience,’ she says.

For Cathy, too, pookalams are a wonderful way for expat Malayali children to stay connected with their roots.

Growing up in Bahrain, Cathy learnt all about the legend that surrounds Onam and the traditions when her family participated in such functions and competitions.

‘These competitions recreates a simulacrum of the homeland even when we’re far away and for those like me who live here alone, it’s a great way to feel part of a family unit and overcome homesickness,’ says the 25-year-old.

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But as is the nature of competitions, the gentle floral art form can get a tad cutthroat and thorny, admit the women, recounting funny anecdotes about rivalries. ‘Sometimes, during community floral carpet competitions, a family of four would end up in different groups and each member would go to great lengths to keep their team’s design a secret from the others,’ laughs Prabita.

While most traditional competitions give a 10- or 12-member team anywhere from an hour or two to create their designs, Friday’s three-women show took four and a half hours to layout their two-metre diameter pookalam. ‘The more members, the quicker you finish it. The artistically-inclined draw the design on the floor while the nifty ones start filling it with flower petals, chopped coloured leaves or grass.’

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For Friday’s pookalam, Prabita, an architect, used AutoCAD to create the design. She then printed it out on an A0 sheet of paper with each design element colour coded to avoid confusion and save on time.

Cathy, an engineer and art enthusiast, assisted in the design and choice of colours, while Prameela, a homemaker, sourced 10kg flowers from a flower store close to the temple in Bur Dubai. ‘Even during my younger days, we could easily source six to seven varieties and colours of flowers in Dubai,’ she says.

Some competitions allow for designs on cardboards or drawing sheets to be taped to the floor and used (like we did); others insist patterns are drawn freehand on the floor at the venue.

Other criteria that judges use to grade a pookalam are how close the design reflects the theme which could be Kerala’s art form Katahakali or traditional Onam sports such as the boat races.

Precision is valued too. ‘Participants can get pernickety about perfection,’ says Prameela. ‘The edges of the design 
have to be neat, colours can’t mix. Once you start from the centre and start building out there’s no going back to rectify an error or remove stray petals without ruining the edges.’

Today, she’s using the edge of a card to push flowers into the outlines and align them to fit the pattern while the other two members use stringy evergreen grass to demarcate design elements from each other.

Midway through making the Friday pookalam we learn an important lesson: colours can make or break a design.

The team realises that the tuberose bulbs they’ve chopped for the white portions of the design have started turning brown dulling the entire project. An emergency run is made to the nearest florist and we return with 40 stems of pure white daisies whose individual petals add a 3D relief to the design perking it up instantly. ‘That’s the magic of the correct colours,’ Cathy cheers.

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At 4.30pm, Friday’s pookalam is finally complete and the women change into their traditional Kerala saris for the photoshoot. They’ve been on their hands and knees since 10am and are relieved to stand up, stretch and admire their handiwork.

The trio’s main sense of accomplishment stems from the fact that they’ve used only flowers and didn’t resort to other commonly-used substitutes such as coloured desiccated coconut or grated vegetables that some competition organisers turn a blind eye to. ‘Desiccated coconut or vegetables are usually an option when patterns are extremely intricate and require materials finer than petals or when flowers of certain colours aren’t available,’ Cathy explains.

Over the next four days, shopping mall entrances, community centre halls and the lobbies of Keralite restaurants in the UAE will bloom into a bouquet of floral carpets. ‘More than 15 tonnes of flowers will be used to create pookalams in the UAE,’ estimates V.Perumaal, owner of a flower store in Dubai.

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While assorted designs, materials and dimensions will set these designs apart what unites them is how they unite diverse communities and people from different walks of life to create something beautiful.

‘Everyone willingly collaborates and nothing compares to the sense of satisfaction and happiness you feel when you’ve finished a beautiful pookalam together.’ says Prameela.

Read more: Onam Sadhya: Surrendering the spoon
Read more: Where to eat Onam sadhya in the UAE

Shreeja Ravindranathan

Shreeja Ravindranathan

Photography by Aiza Castillo-Domingo