Vaigai River Restoration Project


Paulthy River Citysmall

Image Source: Paulthy of Flickr

Earth Celebrations, DHAN Foundation & Asia Initiatives Present

Vaigai River Restoration Pageant & Project:

a social action art initiative and an international collaborative effort to restore the sacred Vaigai River in Madurai, South India that is in a severe environmental crisis due to pollution, waste dumping, and the drying effects of climate change.

The project utilizes the inspirational power of the arts to mobilize community action and build partnerships among diverse groups and people throughout the city to work together developing and implementing solutions to restore the Vaigai River.

The Vaigai River Restoration Project completed phase one from January 2014 – May 2015, mobilizing this effort and engaging thousands of people from throughout the Madurai area including: academic institutions, local organizations, schools, government officials, local folk artisans, students, farmers, and women’s empowerment groups to collaborate on the creative social action art project which culminated in a spectacular procession along the Vaigai River highlighting the issues of pollution, waste dumping, and climate change and mobilizing continuing efforts for its restoration.



The Vaigai River Restoration Pageant Project is an educational ecological art project that engages the local community, raises public environmental awareness, and mobilizes direct action and support to restore the water quality, species, habitats and health of India’s famous Vaigai River in the ancient temple city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India. The project raises awareness to mitigate the severe crisis of pollution and contamination of a major natural water resource by waste dumping, toxic chemical pollution, poor water flow, and promotes ecologically sustainable solutions for agricultural irrigation, safe drinking water, and restoration plans of this vital natural resource that the community depends on for their survival.

The project engages the community to address, raise public awareness, and participate in direct action solutions to restore the Vaigai River through an innovative and creative strategy utilizing community-based art and the theatrical pageant indigenous art-form to impact the issue and effect positive change. The pageant features a procession of giant mobile sculptures, spectacular costumes, and musical bands with performances at significant sites along the route following the river bank in Madurai. Performances by local artists and community groups include theater, dance, songs, music, poetry, and ceremony celebrating the history, current issues, and future restoration of the river. The project has come at a critical moment to have an impact on the future of the Vaigai River and to serve as a global model for ecological and social change through creative and artistic community action.

Environmental & Art Workshops: January — April 2015: An educational workshop series builds community engagement and awareness of the Vaigai River for 3 months leading up to the culminating Vaigai River Restoration Pageant. Community participants work with artists-in-residence to create giant mobile sculptures, puppets, costumes, visual artwork, and performances. A total of 20 workshops will be led by local artists to engage community participants and students.

Pageant Date: April 2015: Prior to Chithirai Festival in Madurai, South India.

Location / Procession Route: Along the banks of the Vaigai River from Villangudi to Albert Victor Bridge and the Maiya Mandapam, in Madurai, South India.

best map madurai in India jpg Image Source:

Madurai, situated on the banks of the Vaigai River, in Tamil Nadu, Southern India is known as the Temple City of India. Marco Polo called Madurai the most splendid province on Earth. The magnificence of Madurai as a cultural center since the Tamil Era 2,500 years ago, as well as the beauty of the Vaigai River that runs through it, has been celebrated for thousands of years in Indian literature and sacred texts. Here the ancient past exists alongside the modern world, with its people still practicing sacred and ancient traditions rooted in its legendary history. The city centers around the Meenakshi Temple known for its magnificent Dravidian architecture with gopurams completely covered and embellished with intricate colorful sculptural images of gods, animals, and mythical creatures. Madurai’s significance as a center for textiles dates back to its ancient past, as well as the place where in 1921 Mahatma Gandhi’s relinquished his clothing to wear a loincloth made of khadi (homespun cloth) as an act to align himself with the people, and as an act of social change.

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Image Sources: Left- Heritage of India; Right- Indian Temples History; Middle- rémi Karner and Pema; Bottom- Wikipedia

The Vaigai River Restoration Pageant Project was initiated by social action artist Felicia Young, Founder/Executive Director of Earth Celebrations, a non-profit environmental and arts organization based in New York City, in partnership with the DAHN Foundation, an NGO and non-profit organization working to restore the Vaigai River in Madurai, South India, and New York City based Asia Initiatives, active throughout Asia applying their SoCC (Social Capital Credits) a model community incentive program. The partners have made a commitment of at least five years to this project and effort.

Earth Celebrations
Earth Celebrations is a New York City based non-profit organization founded by Felicia Young which works to engage communities to address and effect change on ecological issues through the arts. Earth Celebrations’ creative environmental and arts programs address and effect change on issues such as:  climate change, river species and habitat restoration, and the preservation of community gardens, parks, and a healthy urban environment, while highlighting ecological sustainability. Earth Celebrations’ innovative theatrical pageants and community-based arts programs address crucial ecological issues, including our 15 year effort that led to the preservation of community gardens on the Lower East Side and throughout New York City and the Hudson River Pageant to raise awareness for the restoration of the Hudson River and addressing climate change.

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Image Source: Earth Celebrations Hudson River Pageant Costumes. Photo by Carl Saytor

DHAN Foundation
Development of Humane Action (DHAN) Foundation, an NGO and nonprofit organization based in Madurai, South India, has a mission to “build people and institutions for development innovations and upscale (them) to enable poverty reduction and self-reliance in poor communities.” The program has identified ‘Water’ as a unique tool for alleviating poverty and has evolved into a separate people’s institution, the ‘DHAN Vayalagam (Tank) Foundation (DVTF)’. The Foundation aims to restore water quality and access water through tank-based watershed development supporting agriculture needs. DHAN is also engaged in programs to clean and restore the Vaigai River from waste dumping and contaminants, and to raise community awareness and participation in these efforts. DHAN (Development of Human Action) Foundation, an NGO based in Madurai was awarded the India NGO award in 2009 by The Rockefeller Foundation.


Image Source: DHAN Foundation

Asia Initiatives
Asia Initiatives (AI), a New York registered non-profit organization undertakes projects that are pro-environment and pro-poor. AI has pioneered the use of Social Capital Credits (SoCCs) to incentivize local people to undertake social good activities, and will develop the SoCCs system to incentivize attendance in the workshops, and the restoration the Vaigai River, working closely with the local community and other stakeholders. This initiative is leadby Dr. Geeta Mehta, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Columbia University and the Founder/President of Asia Initiatives.

The Vaigai River Restoration Pageant Project raises awareness to mitigate the severe environmental crisis of pollution and contamination of a major natural water resource and to counter the effects of climate change including:

• Household waste and sewage dumping.
• Industrial and chemical pollutants flowing into the river.
• Sand mining the riverbed.
• Issues of dam control and water releases.
• Lack of drainage and sanitation infrastructure.
• Restoration and expansion of water storage tanks for agricultural irrigation and drinking water.
• Improvement of the water quality from contaminants for healthy drinking water which the community depends on for survival.
• Building environmental awareness and community engagement in river restoration efforts.

PTR Bridge

Image Source: R. Ashok; “And Quietly Flows a Much Sullied Vaigai,” The Hindu

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Image Source: R. Ashok; Photo Feature in The Hindu turns PIL Petition, The Hindu 


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Image Source: Kamala L on Flickr

“Once the preliminary work of clearing garbage is completed, measures will be taken to stop public from letting sewage water into the river. We have invited suggestions from people and activists to keep the river clean.”
– Mayor V.V. Rajan Chellappa of Madurai

“Still hundreds of acres of agricultural land rely on this river. People should be given proper awareness about the condition of the river.”
– Selvam Ramasamy, Environmental Activist

“The major area of pollution falls within the city limit… solid waste, plastic waste, untreated sewage water from institutions and houses act as the major pollutants. Only by increasing the water flow of the river, it can be brought to life again. Mixing of sewage water and dumping of solid waste should also be stopped to set it right.”
– Professor G Balaji, Department of Architecture, Thiagarajar College of Engineering

“A proper vision from all stakeholders will help preserve our rivers.”
– K Kalidas, President of Osai, an environmental NGO

“The Vaigai river bed, which is dry in most parts, is often used as a garbage dump by people in the surrounding areas as well as passers-by. People just fling garbage bags into the river.”
-Staff Reporter, The Hindu

“Untreated effluents have raised the pollution level of water. The concentration of total dissolved solids (TSD) in water here is 3,500 to 4,000 ppm, when the acceptable level should be below 500 ppm. Resultantly, the areas adjoining Chinnalapatti are fast becoming barren due to underground pollution. Agriculture is also affected.”
 S Mahendran, a resident, who is also the manager of the Agriculture Technology Management Association


Mayor V.V. Rajan Chellappa inspects a mass cleaning program: Vaigai Bed Loses Litter, The Hindu

• Raise awareness among local population for health of the water quality of Vaigai River, honoring the river, water, and natural world within the urban environment
• Raise awareness to keep the river clean and not dump waste.
• Highlight and mobilize community engagement and support for river clean-up efforts including: trash removal, alternatives for waste disposal, clean public toilets, functioning drainage systems, water flow, storage, and irrigation.
• Increase public awareness for DHAN Foundation’s projects such as Vayalagam Tankfed Agriculture Development Program (VTADP), restoration of water quality, and efforts to provide safe drinking water.
• Build partnerships and engage, city officials, corporations, environmental organizations, activists, farming groups, schools and universities active on the river.
• Engage community participation in creative ecological art project and pageant performance to bring attention to the river, its history, and efforts to restore the health of the river for drinking water, agriculture, recreation, and peaceful open space within the city.
• Highlight and initiate proposals for visions for the future of the river such as a river park along the banks of the Vaigai and other recreational uses that promote the care and appreciation of the river, its historical legacy, and future as an ecological oasis within the city.

Creative Strategy to Engage Community Participation, Raise Awareness, and Effect Change

plant bucket procession

Mulaipari festival at Koovathupatti, Tamil Nadu; Terres de Charme

The theatrical pageant is an innovative and creative strategy to engage community participation, raise public environmental awareness, and mobilize direct action and support for the efforts addressing crucial issues of the Vaigai River that impact the lives of the local community.

The pageant includes:
•  a colorful procession along the banks of the Vaigai River featuring giant mobile sculptures/puppets, costumes, and visual processional artwork.
• site-specific performances of dance, theater, music, poetry, and ceremony at significant sites along the route.
• local artists, performing groups, schools, environmental organizations, community and cultural centers that are invited to participate in the collaborative creative process and culminating performance.

The site-specific performances highlight various aspects of the river:
• historic legacy of the Vaigai River honored for thousands of years in Indian literature.
• native species and habitats that thrived throughout its history.
• current environmental awareness issues of pollution and climate change, and efforts to clean and restore the river from waste dumping, as well as improve water quality, flow, and irrigation for local farming.



Educational Environmental Art Workshop Series: January – April 2015
Free workshops will be conducted by the artists-in-residence/workshop instructors in collaboration with environmental educators to engage community members and students, educating the participants on the issues of the Vaigai River and solutions to be implemented. Asia Initiatives will bring in their unique system of Social Capital Credits (SoCCs) as a way to incentivize the community to attend the workshops and contribute towards the river restoration. The work created in the workshops will raise awareness for specific issues and will be presented in the Pageant

The workshop series hosted by the Thiagarjar College of Engineering and Architecture and Tata/Dhan Academy in Madurai, engages youth and adults for 3 months to:

Explore the diversity of plant and animal life as indicators of the river’s health, as well as discuss current issues concerning pollution and waste through a ‘place-based’ learning process.
Work with artists-in-residence to create spectacular visual arts works such as mobile sculptures/puppets and costumes for the procession inspired by the species, habitats, issues, and restoration efforts of the river.
Utilize ecologically friendly practices in the creation of art projects, incorporating the use of recycled, natural and organic materials.
Engage local artisans to participate in the project creating visual art projects highlighting their folk art traditions such as: clay sculptures, costumes, handloom textiles, bamboo/paper-maché sculpture, decorative processional staffs, headdresses, masks, face painting, palanquins/processional sculpture carts, kolam rice/chalk powder drawings, Sungudi saree and dyeing techniques, that revive traditional vegetables dyes rather than chemical dyes that pollute the river.
Earn Social Capital Credits (SoCCs), a virtual currency for social good, will be used to implement the above processes not only during the workshops, but as a long term practice for sustainable ecological and social development. People will be able to earn SoCCs by helping with the pageant, and river cleaning actions such as waste management, maintaining irrigation channels and water tanks, planting trees etc. They will be able to use the SoCCs thus earned to get services like subsidized electricity, telephone talk time, school scholarships, healthcare, etc.

Develop solutions for river restoration.

Chemical Dye Pollution, The Times of India
Ensure the Idols are Made of Clay, The Hindu

painting ganesh processional sculpture jpg

Image Sources Starting from Top: K. Ananthan, The Hindu; Earth Celebrations Hudson River Pageant Puppet Workshop, New York City;
S. James, The Hindu


The Vaigai River Restoration Pageant: April 2015
• Builds partnerships with local schools, environmental organizations, farming groups, and community and cultural centers throughout the Madurai area, inviting groups to create performances and visual art for participation in the pageant.
• Engages participants and the public in culminating Vaigai River Pageant as a collaborative community performance, featuring a procession with site-specific performances along the banks of the Vaigai River from Villangudi to Albert Victor Bridge and the Maiya Mandapam, in Madurai.

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Lord Kallazhagar`s advent into Madurai, Prokerala News

Visual art and performances for the Pageant:
Giant mobile sculptures on traditional processional carts and puppets utilize local folk traditions to represent native species, habitat, history, issues, and efforts to restore the river.
Costumes will utilize folk traditions and incorporate hand loom textiles and Sungudi fabrics, a traditional craft of Madurai. Craftsmen will be incentivized to use traditional vegetable dyes rather than chemical pigments that pollute the river.
Educational performances by local performing and community groups address: legacy of Vaigai River in mythological and historic texts; native river species and habitats; issues of waste and sewage dumping; industrial and chemical pollution; and restoration efforts to improve water quality, water flow, and health of the river.
Organic Planting Performance celebrating the river as a life source for agriculture and sustainable organic farming and importance of water storage tank restoration for irrigation.
River Cleansing Ceremony will engage community participants in a choreographed movement and clean-up along the river bank.
Live Fish Release: ceremonial action – children offer fish back to the river.

Pageant Date: April 2015:Prior to Chithirai Festival in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India

Ganshe idol immersion

Idols being taken out in a procession before immersion as part of Vinayaka Chathurthi celebrations in Madurai. Photo by S. James

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Young students performing traditional dances, Lokvani

Kavadi the hindu

Men in procession carrying large decorative ambala kalvadis, The Hindu

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Artistes attired in the garb of guardian deities and other mythological characters. Photo by S. James

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Temple Chariot Procession at Madurai, Indian Panorama

Vaigai River Restoration Pageant features a procession of giant mobile sculptures, spectacular costumes, and musical bands with site-specific performances along the banks of the Vaigai River from Villangudi to Albert Victor Bridge and the Maiya Mandapam, in Madurai.

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The Vaigai River will be renewed with creative inspiration and collaborative efforts of the community as well as the support of the many individuals and organizations in Madurai and beyond who care about the future of the rivers, natural resources, ecological sustainability, and water on which we all depend for our future survival.

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river rice planting
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Image Sources Starting from Top: K K Sundar; Through the Xpress Lens, Continents Insolites, S. James, The Hindu, Oochappan, TrekEarth


Vaigai Social Awareness Short Film by Kalai Selvan

And Quietly Flows a Much Sullied Vaigai

Corporation to Patrol River Bank to Stop Dumping of Waste

River Clean Up Underway

Corporation Invites Public for Cleaning Vaigai


Felicia Young is a theatrical pageant director and founder of Earth Celebrations a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging communities to address and effect change on ecological issues through the arts. She has produced large-scale theatrical pageants for the past 25 years such as the Rites of Spring: Procession to Save Our Gardens (1991-2005) on the Lower East Side of New York City, which mobilized a grass-root effort and directly led to the preservation of many community gardens on the Lower East Side and throughout New York City. In 2009 Felicia launched the Hudson River Pageant to restore the species and habitats of the Hudson River and address climate change in New York City. She has produced and directed theatrical pageants and community-based arts projects for numerous organizations including: the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Alternative Museum, Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Brookfield Properties> arts World Financial Center, The World Trade Center, and Earth Day New York. She has a BA in Art History from Skidmore College, 1987, and a MA degree in Performance Studies from New York University, 1994. Earth Celebrations

Rajasekaran Jesudasan is a Trustee of Arunachalam Jesudasan Trust and Field Director CM Centre Madurai Services for International Scholars, Educators, Researchers & Students in South India, where he is currently on a sabbatical for a year until May 2015. He served for more than 25 years as Resident Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in India Programme, Madurai, and during that time also assisted a great many visiting scholars from USA and European Universities. As Field Director at CM Centre, Sekar organizes every resource necessary to provide for the needs of scholars and students, ranging from setting up meetings with government agencies, NGOs, individuals, private institutions or business houses to interviewing a village shaman. For the past 20 years Sekar has been researching and documenting the Vaigai River and is Co-Author of Stretch of Life on the Vaigai River with Peter Nabakov. Rajasekaran as Co-Director of the Vaigai River Restoration Pageant Project will coordinate with DHAN Foundation and Earth Celebrations, engage collaborating community partners, artists, and performers, and manage production logistics. Sekar is also a social activist and a musician who performs throughout Tamil Nadu, including the Hard Rock Cafe in Madras. He has a B.A. degree in English Literature from American College in Madurai

Dr. M.P. Vasimalai, Phd, Co-Founder/Co-Sponsor is the Founder/ Executive Director of the DHAN Foundation in India. Mr. M.P. Vasimalai, Executive Director of DHAN Foundation is a post graduate in Agriculture and a management graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He has over three decades of experience in development work and is one of the key people in setting up Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN). He was instrumental in setting up DHAN Foundation in 1997. He has specialized in community organization, designing development interventions in the fields of natural resource management, livelihood promotion and institutional development. He has traveled extensively within and outside India and has presented papers on these themes. He is also holding various positions in national and international forums, working groups, task forces and missions of Central and State governments on these themes. He was instrumental in promoting various network organizations. His areas of interest are institution building, leadership development and promoting various development themes for poverty reduction
Dr. Geeta Mehta, PhD, Project Co-Sponsor, Founder/President of Asia Initiatives. Geeta is the Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Columbia University in New York. She serves on the advisory board of Millennium Cities Initiatives at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. She has worked on community focused design and poverty alleviation projects in India, Ghana, Kenya, Jamaica, Brazil, and Colombia. She is also the Co-Founder of “URBZ: User Generated Cities” (, a think tank committed to empowering people at the community level to improve their own neighborhoods. Geeta is the past President of the American Institute of Architects’ Japan Chapter.


David Blake Willis, PhD
Professor of Anthropology, Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, USA
Doctoral faculty – School of Human & Organizational Development.  Lived and worked in Madurai, South India, and lived 35 years in Asia, including Kobe, Japan, where rivers are a prime cultural/ecological feature of the landscape. Biography

Elango Kallanai
Writer, speaker on Neeya Naana Vijay TV Show
Cultural and political debate program in Tamil Nadu.

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Big Bass Puppet by artist-in-residence Lucrecia Novoa in Earth Celebrations’ Hudson River Pageant, New York City. Photo by Jacques Torchon Jr.

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Recycler-Plastic costume in Earth Celebrations’ Hudson River Pageant, New York City. Photo by Jacques Torchon Jr.

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Wetlands and Water costume in Earth Celebrations’ Hudson River Pageant, New York City. Photo by Carl Saytor

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Puppets of Blue Crab, Oyster, Seahorse by artist-in-residence Lucrecia Novoa, in Earth Celebrations’ Hudson River Pageant, New York City. Photo by Jacques Torchon Jr.

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River Species Costumes in Earth Celebrations’ Hudson River Pageant, New York City. Photo by Rachel Elkind

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Boat Dance, choreographed by Alice Farley in Earth Celebrations’ Hudson River Pageant, New York City. Photo by David Chmura

Join Us and Help Support the Vaigai River Pageant Project

All donations are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law

Felicia Young
Founder/Executive Director
Earth Celebrations
(212) 777-7969

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