Words Catherine McMaster
First impressions are important and can often have a lingering after effect. However, as often, appearances are deceptive. Three words came to mind when I first stepped off the plane in Chennai to change planes for Madurai; dirty, noisy, smelly. Such a description hardly lends itself to an appealing image. But underneath this first impression of chaos, commotion and people, a harmonious tranquility and beauty lay in this country and in its people that I would soon discover.
Before journeying to any foreign country one always does a little research. But no amount of guide books, documentaries or blogs can prepare you for the actual real experience of living, working and travelling in India. The first few days can be quite daunting. Cultural shock hits you head on as you are thrown into a kaleidoscope of vibrant colorful saris, the jarring and continuous sound of honking and the constant bustle of people.
Whether it is catching the local bus, eating with your right hand or trying to grasp a few words of the Tamil language, the culture and lifestyle here is so decidedly different from anything that I have been previously used to.
The cure for any type of cultural shock I have come to discover is just to completely embrace all of these differences with an open mind. For my first week in Madurai I was fortunate enough to experience the celebrations of the Pongal Festival in a nearby village. Festivals in India are in abundance and are truly unique. Upon arrival in Salvarpatti we began games immediately with a competition between the women of who could cook the tastiest Pongal. Now, Australians are competitive, but the word competition took on a completely new meaning here. Women baited and taunted each other as they pushed their heavy sarees aside to light the wooden fires. One could hardly see or hear amidst the smoke and cries of the village women. It was to the untrained eye, a chaotic mess. But beneath this chaos of smoke, sarees and screams, was an ordered and harmonious process.
This melting pot of tradition, culture, chaos and song extends to the cinema here in India. The culture of Indian cinema radiates in Madurai. Life-size pictures of famous actors and actresses line the city walls and posters of the latest films appear everywhere. The newest sensation is Kollywood (Tamil’s version of Bollywood) film Jilla. A mixture of musical songs, hip-hop combined with classical Indian dance, comedy and dare devil stunts blend together in one three-hour extravaganza. Going to the pictures is certainly an experience in itself. The crowd hisses and cusses when the villain appears, cheers when Shakti (the protagonist) enters and sings along to all the Kollywood catchy tunes. Such burlesque style of entertainment is unparalleled in Australian cinema and I enjoy my first experience of Kollywood immensely. Kollywood is unique to Tamil Nadu and is closely intertwined with their culture.
My first impressions of Madurai have certainly altered since arriving. Sifting through the continuous commotion of cars honking, vendors trying to entice every passerby, the chants that begin at 4am, the smell of ghee and other spices, there is an earthly and spiritual essence to this city that immediately draws you in. I have only been here for one week but I have already seen and learnt so much. You can’t help but to be captivated by the enchantment of India and I am already feeling that my month in Madurai is going far too quickly for my liking.