When she adorns the elaborate costume of a king, with a thick moustache, crown and a traditional Kerala umbrella and leads the Onam procession, nobody would mistake her for anyone other than King Maveli.
Nobody would even realize that behind the costume of Maveli, is a woman who is determined to break stereotypes.
“Why can’t women dress up as Maveli? It is not a privilege of pot-bellied men,” Asha Mary declares.
For the past eight years, Asha Mary, a resident of Maradu in Ernakulam district of Kerala has been dressing up as Maveli (also known as Mahabali) for the Onam celebrations conducted in the municipality.
Risks have never deterred Asha Mary, and so when members of a women’s group she was part of decided to have a Maveli for their Onam celebrations, Asha jumped at the opportunity.
“I was the obvious choice, not only because I expressed willingness, but also because of my physique,” Asha heartily laughs.
Until 2007, the Ernakulam Social Service Society, a women’s group based in the district, conducted Onam celebrations in all its fervour, but Maveli did not figure into the list. In 2008, the group decided that they would get a Maveli in addition to other celebrations like arranging pookkalam, tug of war and the like.
In Kerala, community Onam celebrations are not complete without a procession led by Maveli, the king who is said to come to visit his people annually.
Asha Mary as Maveli in a recent Onam procession held in Maradu
Asha fondly remembers the first time she dressed up as Maveli. Also because she hid the fact from her family for fear of being teased.
“I didn’t tell my family about this until the third year. During the Onam rally in 2008, I waved at my friends who were standing outside their houses to see the procession, but they didn’t recognize me,” Asha says.
After the first year, there was no looking back. She was given the honour of becoming the “woman Maveli” of the town. However, two years back when Asha was taken ill, the group found a replacement, a man.
“But nobody liked him as Maveli. They came back to tell me that I must participate the next year,” Asha recalls.
For Asha, seeing people's surprise on discovering that the Maveli they’re looking at is a woman is a bonus.
Once, a television actor, who attended the celebrations as the chief guest, failed to realize that the Maveli sitting next to her was, in fact, a woman.
"It is only when the organisers announced towards the end of the programme that this actor realized I was a woman," Asha laughs.
Eight years after she first dressed up Maveli, she is the unanimous of the town to play the legendary king!