This time round, designer Sabari Venu has imagined a fiesty Mahabali coming to Kerala on a Great Pied Hornbill. Hair flying in the air, the mundu-clad, bearded Mahabali is clearly enjoying his ride in Sabari’s illustration, which has been shared on his Instagram account @meancurry.
Onam celebrates the annual visit of the mythological king who is believed to have ruled over Kerala before being sent to the nether world by Vamana, Lord Vishnu’s fifth incarnation.
In popular visual language, Mahabali has often been portrayed as a chubby king with a potbelly and a huge moustache. There were some recent attempts to give him a makeover by visualising him as a tall, fair, muscled royal and also popularise the image of Mahabali in Raja Ravi Varma’s painting.
Moving away from those cliched images, Sabari is continuing a tradition he began in 2019 when he put out a call to reimagine Mahabali, a ‘draw this in your style’ Mahabali.
Talking about the Mahabali astride a hornbill, Sabari admits that this year he had almost stopped the effort to come up with a more realistic picture of the benevolent King “as he did not want to it to be a forced attempt”. But then he came up with a brilliant, animated visual of Mahabali riding a hornbill, the State bird of Kerala.
In one of his earlier posts accompanying a drawing of Mahabali, he says, “The current joke of a caricature of Mahabali that we see all around us is a disgrace to what he represents to all Malayalis. An Asura Dravidian King, a just, benevolent leader, reduced to this…. Santa in a mundu.”
The results were overwhelming as drawings poured in, reimaging Mahabali in myriad ways. Sabari has featured five of his illustrations. The dark complexioned, bearded Mahabali of 2019, wearing a dhothi, ear rings, a broad neck piece and wrist bands, has a neatly-folded towel on his shoulder.
In 2020, it was an eco-friendly, grinning Mahabali standing in the middle of a bed of flowers, with blooms adorning his beard. The next year, a leaner, younger, clean-shaven Mahabali made his appearance. Clad in a red kara mundu, he had a bag of flowers and had hibiscus flowers tucked behind his ears. Writes Sabari, “..My Maveli is a kutti Maveli who loves flowers. I tried using elements of Onapottan as inspiration to create this little man. Onapottan is a folk character who is believed to represent Mahabali, and is a common sight towards the North of Kerala.”
He says the idea was to use traditional references for the character.
Last year, in 2022, Mahabali, long hair flying in the air, uses a red hibiscus as a parasol.
Sabari says that his attempt was to visualise a Mahabali or Maveli “that does justice to what the character represents. “
He writes: “It is an attempt to add to the existing movement to reclaim Mahabali’s image, which currently is a Brahminised cartoon that does not come close to representing a just Asura King, who is believed to have presided over a casteless society.”
He had called for drawings this year too with a reminder that since the idea is to revisualise Mahabail, the art works of the King should not have any kind caste markers.
Tag him or add the #OurMahabali hashtag.
Sabari says he plans to continue the practice for a few more years. With 95.8 K followers, the new versions of Mahabali is quite capable of muscling out earlier versions of the king.