Ponnadai! What magic the word wrought, when as a kid, you read it in Tamil historical novels or poetry! Everytime you came across a raja honouring a poet in sheer amazement at his extraordinary talent, you imagined a robe as resplendent as the shower of gold coins with which he rewarded him. After all, the word ponnadai meant a golden garment or golden shawl, didn't it?
I saw a ponnadai in real life for the first time perhaps in the 1980s. It was no golden shawl, but it was silk, a nice tan colour and had a zari border. It was something someone might have happily worn over his jibba without feeling seriously embarrassed. This was at a function to honour a musician.
Since then, I have seen many shawls through the decades, shawls that dignitaries wrapped around other dignitaries on the dais (or dias, to be more precise), not to mention yours truly. These once second rate pieces of cloth have got steadily cheaper and uglier, so that they are now worse than third rate in colour, texture and overall quality, so gaudy that you need protective eyewear to look at them, so flimsy that they come apart in your hands even before you descend from the stage.
What does the receiver of a ponnadai do with it? I tried giving mine away to the watchman, rickshawwallah and milkman, but none of them was interested. They invariably said, “This is totally useless, sir. Who'll want it?” “Can't you use it as a blanket?” I asked one of them. The withering look he gave me was in the Ajit or Rajnikanth class of sarcasm and subtle warning. A musician I met the other day recalled how an organiser pounced on him after he wrote to his sabha that instead of decorating him with a shawl they could give the Rs 100 or so to charity. Another friend of mine confesses that she consigns shawls to the nearest dustbin, often inside airports if she has received them while travelling. “In the US, NRIs insist on inflicting cheap shawls they bought in Chennai on us!”
There was a theory some years ago that the shawl draped around you today is perhaps a second hand one, something an earlier recipient disposed of in the flea market. I am informed by a very reliable source that this is standard practice in the film industry. At best it is a ponnadai that the sabha secretary was adorned with last month and kept safe for the person he has decided to “honour” today. At worst, I think it is an atrocious insult delivered to its innocent recipient. The insult is compounded by the casual so-called felicitation address by someone who has no clue who you are, and sometimes turns to you and asks you to fill in the blanks when he forgets your name or initials - all this while two other so-called dignitaries on the stage are engaged in their own loud conversation. Humiliatingly, the crowd in the audience begins to grow from 20 or so to a decent number towards the end of the function, because there's a concert scheduled to follow. If India ever develops a national culture policy (something we haven't done in 70m years), I hope the first casualty will be this disgusting practice. Ban ponnadais!...