Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ponggal Night

Peninsular Malaysia has an ethnic Indian minority of nearly 10%. Sarawak's Indian community on the other hand is tiny, registering less than one hundredth of a percent of the population. Still, there are enough Indians at and around UNIMAS to put on one heck of a Ponggal Night 2009.

I had mistakenly assumed that Hindi, the official language of India (along with English), would be the mother tongue of most Indians in Malaysia. Actually, the majority here are ethnic Tamils and speak the Tamil language. Besides India and Sri Lanka, Malaysia has the world's highest population of Tamils, a result of the British colonial government having recruited Indian laborers to clear jungle, build roads, and work on rubber estates.

The harvest festival of Ponggal, something like a Thanksgiving, is celebrated by Tamil Hindus worldwide. The peak of the four-day festival actually occurred back on January 14th, but the huge amount of preparation required for this annual UNIMAS event means it can't be ready before March. A traditional celebration of the festival includes many customs and rituals being performed each of the four days, but UNIMAS Ponggal Night consists simply of Indian food, a speech, and a lot – lot – LOT of choreographed dance performances.

Jana is an Indian girl who sold Seon and me our tickets. I met up with her to get the tickets and took the opportunity to ask some questions about Ponggal and Hindu practice. She sent me a text message the night before the event to ask me something, and that led to a conversation that I thought I'd share. (I wasn't a big texter before coming here, but students do it so often that I've jumped on board.)

Jana: Hi blaire, how r u? Did u mind if I put urs n Seon's name sitting together wit some Indian guys?
Blair: I'm well. Don't mind. That sounds good.
Blair: Our table should have girls too though :)
Jana: Ok…pls bring ur tickets 2moro…
Jana: Hey u naughty boy…all guyslah…:-)
Blair: Haha, alright then. We'll bring our tix, don't worry.
Jana: Ok c u 2moro...hope u enjoy our performance…hope u show ur talent(dancing)..haha..
Blair: Ha! I have talent in sports and drumming, NOT dancing, but I'll give it a try :)
Jana: Ya ya.. i hope so.. but u still have to dance wit guys..ha..ha..

She got the last word.

Above is the Dean of Student Affairs whose face is very common around these parts as he's invited to speak at seemingly every schoolwide event (and there are many). I didn't know it at the time because his speeches are in Malay, but he actually mentioned me in one of them. Referring to last month's track meet that I took part in, he mentioned his amusement at observing how the Malaysian athletes took three steps for every two of mine. Then he went on to criticize the students for failing to stretch and warm up like I did, attributing my success partly to my pre-race routine. Based on the frequency of cramping and injury I've observed around me when playing sports here, his was a fair criticism that students generally do not take seriously stretching and warming up.

He interrupted his Ponggal Night speech every five minutes or so to take a crack at reciting simple phrases in the Tamil language. The forgiving crowd of almost a thousand cheered him enthusiastically for each attempt.

Other than the meal and speech, the four-hour night consisted of a few songs and plays and a whole lot of dance performances. I was impressed by the number and variety of dances they pulled off. Each one seemed to go on and on, one song blending into the next without a break in the choreography. There was traditional Indian dancing, hip hop, salsa, ballroom, and even some cross dressers in the mix.

I borrowed my Indian clothes from the UNIMAS theater costume shop.