Trivikrama: Conquering Three Worlds While Bringing Together Two

Seven years ago I met a pretty cool guy who was different than me in almost every single way. This year, I married him.

In many ways, these differences have balanced each other out over the years: he’s laid back, and I’m high-strung; he’s a planner, I’m spontaneous; he uses his left brain more and I use more of my right.

When it comes to personalities, we off-set each other and have figured out how to make a pretty good team. At the same there was one difference we had to address very early on in our initial stages of dating, one that I didn’t even notice when I first met him because it seemed we still had many of the same traditions: He is Malayalee Catholic and I am Tamil Hindu.

It didn’t seem like such a stark difference when we first met because we had many cultural traditions in common. In fact, the first time he wished me “Happy Onam,” in 2008, I was surprised to learn that his family and community celebrated this festival, which is based on the story of King Mahabali and the Vishnu avatar, but to this day, it’s also an example I reference to remind myself that our communities have more in common than some may think.

 

But it’s also why I was faced with a bit of a dilemma when, this year, my mother-in-law asked me to perform a dance piece at their community’s Onam festival; I wanted to perform a piece that told the story of Onam without offending people in the mostly Catholic community.

The Onam festival celebrates the homecoming of the generous but arrogant King Mahabali after he was banished to the netherworld by Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu. Vishnu, recognizing that King Mahabali was a good devotee and generous king,  allowed to return from the netherworld each year to celebrate the harvest with the people of his kingdom.

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At first, I was hesitant about doing this piece because of the inclusion of the Vamana (Vishnu) avatar and reference to King Mahabali as arrogant. I asked my husband and mother-in-law how it would be received. The more I spoke to them and thought about it, I realized the story of Onam is directly tied to the story of King Mahabali, and it was in our portrayal of the story that we could choose to either celebrate Mahabali’s generosity, or condemn his pride. For this particular festival, we decided to go with the former, especially since, as I’ve noted in a previous post, the “good over evil” themes I learned as a kid are too simplistic a view.

After all, the gods tricked the demons to obtain the ambrosia from the churning of the milky ocean, the decadent Balarama terrorized the river Yamuna, and King Mahabali was actually a good and generous king by whom the gods felt threatened.

We ended up portraying the king as generous, but boasting himself the conqueror of all three realms and as making the mistake of using the dwarf Vamana’s appearance to underestimate the three steps the dwarf requests from him.

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With just the first step the king recognizes his folly. In the first step, Vamana grows beyond his actual stature to conquer the heavens. In the second step, he conquers the earth. He then searches for the third place to keep the final step, and the King offers his own head, pushing him down into the netherworld.
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However, Vishnu, recognizing that the king was a true Vishnu devotee and kept his word, allows the king to return to be with his people each year during the harvest season. This reunion is marked by the festival of Onam.

We called the piece Trivikrama, in reference to Vishnu’s conquests in this story, but also referring to the King’s initial claim that he was conqueror of all realms. The conquering of three physical worlds is supposed to be an allegory for the conquering of mind, body and soul.

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In the end, the dance was received with great enthusiasm and appreciation. We got positive feedback that the dance depicted a meaningful story that related directly to Onam.

I was thrilled. For me, doing this dance represented combining my husband’s tradition with mine. It was the first big event since the wedding where I could fully mingle with my husband’s community and be welcomed by them. So while Trivikrama conquered the three worlds, for me “Trivikrama,” the dance, represented the blending of our two worlds together.

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