Acrylic on 12x14' canvas
The myth behind Onam is that Kerala used to be ruled by an asura king, Mahabali, under whom the kingdom flourished, and made even the gods jealous. So the gods conjured up a brahmin, Vamanan, to defeat the dark-skinned Dravidian asura king. Mahabali, the wise yet incredibly self-less king is asked to give all that he owns to the ‘superior’ Vamanan, and descends to the underworld. Onam marks the return of Mahabali to Kerala, his most beloved land.
The legacy of Onam is a reminder of how toxic and manipulative casteism and racism (which bloomed under Aryans) are, especially against the southern population of the Indian peninsula occupied by dark-skinned Dravidians historically. Dravidian kings such as Mahabali, Raavanan, Bali, prominent female characters such as Thadaka, Shoorppanaka etc were methodically eliminated by the savarna caste system in Hindu mythology. The portrayal of certain sects as vanara or monkey-like may be even interpreted as mockery of Dravidians who had darker skin and anatomical characteristics different from the Aryan race. The shades of deceit and racism are often left out from these stories, and the final product is the good triumphing over the evil, very likely an upper race/caste defeating an inferior race/caste physically and morally.
The ultimate defeat of Mahabali’s legacy comes now, in the present. The majority, if not all with the exception of very few, of Mahabali illustrations show him as a pot-bellied, fair-skinned king, which always confused me as a kid. Recently I came across a post from @meancurry about this, with their more realistic version of Mahabali and decided to give it a try myself. I present to you my Mahabali, the dark-skinned, middle-aged, proud and benevolent warrior king who kept long-term peace in his land. Let’s end the white-washing of Mahabali and celebrate Onam as a reminder of the triumph over racism and casteism. When telling Onam stories to our kids, let’s remind them about the first ever martyrdom in mallu land, the political scheming behind it. Let them decide which ‘God’s own country’ Kerala is- the racist one or the humanitarian one!