“The last time I visited the Mylapore Festival,” says Latha Nathan, “there were lovely paper lanterns that were strung up along the streets. For me, the festival is about being a child again—the street-side shops selling kitschy stuff, the food, the kolams (rangolis), the cotton candy, and getting lost in the crowd under those festive lights.”
In January, when Vincent D’Souza posted on social media that the Mylapore Festival that he has been curating for 18 years, stands cancelled for the second consecutive year, Chennai-ites responded with comments on how much they missed it, despite it being a responsible decision during the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
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The Mylapore Festival has been a mainstay of the cultural calendar of Chennai since 2004. It began as an extension of Mylapore Times, a weekly newspaper edited by D’Souza, which chronicles the people, places and happenings in the neighbourhood of Mylapore, one of the oldest localities of the city. For four days in mid-January, usually around the festival of Pongal, residents of the neighbourhood and those from other parts of the city flock to partake of this culturally immersive experience.
“The biggest challenge,” says D’Souza, on a phone call, “is that it is held on the streets in one of the busiest parts of the city. We started with 2.5 days, moved on to 3 days, and then made it a 4-day festival. We had close to 20 independent events when we last held the festival (in 2020). We've kept the focus to what the area stands for—its tradition and history, which, of course, reflects what the city is, and has been.”
During the festival, much of the neighbourhood and the streets surrounding the 7th century Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple are pedestrianised with a key highlight being the kolam contest. The North Mada Street flanking the temple tank becomes a resplendent carpet with intricate kolam patterns as participants draw their white kolams on the street. The festival began as an annual two-day kolam competition, and the stage performances were later added to keep contestants engaged while their kolams were being judged. The festival now includes lectures, heritage walks, food walks, a food street, contests featuring traditional games like pallankuzhi, and performances of dance and music, both folk and classical.
Sasirekha Raammohan, whose students at the Kanagasabai school of Bharathanatyam, have performed about 7 times at the festival, says, “There’s so much warmth in the way it is organised, from how they check with us about the arrangements to how they receive the artistes. When we perform in auditoriums, the audience is usually full of senior citizens. Here, we meet people of all ages, and from all strata of society who enjoy our performances.”
R. Revathi, who has been a volunteer with the festival for over 10 years, recalls a 2004 dance by the students of the CSI School for the Deaf as one of her favourites. Though the performances are popular, many come for the food, she says. “There are specialists who make kozhakattai and sevai, another who made only Chidambaram gothsu. A group of three women from Mangalore brought us Konkan delicacies and sold out all their portions in 15 minutes,” she says. Although the formal preparations began from October of the previous year, the team would be on the lookout for themes, artistes, cooks and specialists throughout the year. Some events were always held at the same venues, and score sheets for the contests were templated over the years. “At the end of each edition of the festival, we would be exhausted. It would be like organising a wedding with all the chaos,” she says.
D’Souza and his team have faced challenges over the years, including legal cases filed by some local businesses, that the team at Mylapore Festival won. “It is Justice Prabha Sridevan’s long judgement on the case in the third round that has fairly legalised our festival, allowing us those broad outlines inside which we can work for eternity,” he says.
Running a street festival across venues is also logistically daunting, and with a lean group of volunteers, a formidable task. “I'd like a whole load of volunteers to be there,” says D’Souza, “but I think volunteering by working in the public space is not understood unless you provide freebies and certificates. But we are now experts at running a festival with just 10 people.”
Rupam Das, who has been visiting the Mylapore Festival since 2015, says, “I keep going back because it reminds me of the fairs (melas) I attended in my childhood in UP and WB. These fairs used to bring together people, food and events that we normally don’t get to see. There is so much to see, touch, taste and appreciate. The handicraft stalls, the food stalls, the musical events and of course meeting my friends. There is such a variety of scenes and frames that I get to capture in my camera. It's a photographer's paradise whether it's the kolam competitions or food walks or the thousands of people who throng the place every year.”
For those who have experienced its sensory-overload street avatar, the decision not to go the virtual route was easy to understand even though they’re hoping it will return in 2023. As D’Souza says, “It’s a street cultural festival, so it's got to live on the street, right? It’s like the difference between plastic flowers and real flowers.”