Vaigai River Restoration Project Press: Art for Social Change, Community Engagement & International River Restoration Project

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Tamil Nadu

For years now, cleaning of River Vaigai has remained a difficult conundrum for the multiple stakeholders in the city. Will a cultural pageant help to sensitise the people to the resource that the river once was and make them feel more responsible towards its restoration?

Even after the heat, dust and excitement of the ongoing Chithirai festival settle down next week, Madurai will continue to reverberate with the sounds of the cultural parade that roll down the Masi Streets during the celebrations marking the celestial wedding of Lord Sundareswarar and Goddess Meenakshi.

The only difference this time will be the seriousness of an issue – how to revive Vaigai, the city’s lifeline. The cultural pageant slated for May 12 will have all the necessary elements of colours, creativity and concepts and also push forth an important message. The angst and hassles we as citizens face when our river goes dry and turns into a garbage dumping channel.

There is no point in talking about Vaigai’s glory only in the past tense, says A.Gurunathan, the project director of the long-term Vaigai River Restoration Project initiated by the DHAN Foundation. A step in that direction is the making of the cultural pageant in association with Earth Celebrations, a New York-based non-profit organisation. “To begin with, the idea is to attract, educate, sensitise and mobilise people, especially those who live along the river banks, to not to further ruin the river but to help in its revival,” adds Gurunathan.

The proposed cultural pageant will stretch over three kms from Kamarajar Bridge near Fatima College on Dindigul Road to the A.V Bridge near Goripalayam where the Meenakshi Temple well is located. From 3.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. on this Tuesday afternoon, at least 500 people are likely to join in the colourful procession that will boast of multiple innovative elements, conceptualised by Felicia Young, the Founder and Executive Director of Earth Celebrations.

She has carefully named one of her lead actors in the pageant, the ‘Protectress from Trash’. It is a concept based costume, according to Felicia. Designed by local craftspersons Ravi and Amudha, it is designed in the shape of a giant goddess with 16 arms. Made with eco-friendly items, each of the arms will carry trash like wrappers and plastic bottles and bags to highlight the kind of items that pollute the river and how they should be disposed off properly. It is based on ‘Trash Monster’ that Felicia designed earlier for her theatrical pageant aimed at restoring the species and habitats of the once polluted Hudson River in New York City.

Old timers talk of the golden era when people hunted, fished and lived along the banks of flowing Vaigai but how declining rainfall and release of industrial, bio-medical and domestic waste led to the disappearance of the river. The big cultural pageant will also bring in a giant fish measuring 21 feet in length along with three small fishes to emphasise on the benefits of restoration and release of species into the water.

Bamboo artist Prakash has been working hard to make the perfect outline of the giant fish sculpture that will be covered and decorated on the exterior with plastic bottles and metal cans. For this Felicia has an off-beat idea. She is calling upon volunteers to participate in a fish decorating workshop next week and also sent out appeals to people not to trash their trash and instead drop off the recyclable trash at the DHAN office in Vaidyanathapuram East.

“City people can sign up for various roles and tasks for the procession and thereby be involved in the exercise to bring back their river to life,” she says.

There will also be kavadis designed in the form of nine feet tall temple gopurams highlighting the species of land, water and air and the Vaigai ecosystem. Processionists will also carry water in small pots with a tag stating from where the water has been collected. Each of them will pour the water into a huge kumbham, a clay pot measuring four feet high and three feet in diameter that will be carried on a bullock cart at the end of the procession. And finally the water from the giant kumbham will be poured into the river in a symbolic gesture. To keep the tempo of the parade, there will be performances of Karagattam and Oyilattam en route.

The entire pageant will also get three random stops. At the starting point for the opening ceremony, college students will recite poems and sing devotional songs in praise of the river. At another point, community leaders will be honoured and recognised as river custodians. They will be presented with specially woven sungundi shawls bearing motifs of fish, the symbol of Pandiya kingdom. Batches of women will be drawing kolam at the culminating point of the procession near the temple well.

The District Collector, the Mayor and the Commissioner of Madurai Corporation have given their consent for the cultural pageant. “We have to build a true coalition among people and involve everybody from the policy and decision-makers, the academics and the intellectuals, the experts and the experienced, and to the poorest of the poor people who are often left thinking that they can’t do anything for the benefit of the larger community,” says Felicia.

She has been working for the past 18 months with artisans and students of Fatima and Thiagarajar College to design the restoration pageant artistically and conceptually. She was surprised when students shared their ideas for restoring the Vaigai River with parks, organic shops, fishing, sports, recycling bins, clean public toilets, playgrounds for children along the embankment. “A plastic-free zone and fines for polluters and enforcement formed a part of their dream plan,” she adds.

Felicia has also been interacting with settlers along the river bank and empowering them with the knowledge of cleaning of the river and betterment of the environment. She has roped in Dr.Gita Mehta, Professor of Architecture in University of Columbia and her Social Capital Credits Model wherein people get rewarded for any good work. It is called ‘incentivising’ the community, meaning to give away incentives for effecting social change.

DHAN has selected a dozen ‘river custodians’ and divided the stretch of the river from Kochadai to Viraganoor dam into 12 zones. These individuals representing their respective communities will shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the river by setting up councils later that will implement meaningful actions to rejuvenate Vaigai. They include the dhobis, potters, weavers, kiosk owners, slum dwellers and whoever uses the banks of the river for productive or non-productive purposes along with members of academic institutions, hospitals, temples that border the river.

The cultural pageant is the beginning of a long term effort that will have to continue spontaneously with the help of sensitised people and communities, says Felicia, adding, the same people will later become the river assets. The cultural pageant may be a token action, but DHAN as the catalyst wants to drill the message of involvement and responsibility into all stakeholders.

Though Felicia’s art for social change advocacy projects and cultural pageants have proved to be a success in the U.S, she is not sure of the impact here in Madurai. She says she is counting on the ‘Million Dollar Arm’ factor! (the Hollywood film where things somehow come together and fall into place for a sports agent saving his career and he learns the valuable lesson of team work).


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Tamil Nadu

The Vaigai River pageant jointly organised by Earth Celebrations and DHAN Foundation brought together citizens from various walks of life and sparked off healthy discussions on how to rejuvenate the river

Holding discarded plastic bottles in her dozen fake hands, Amudha, a school-goer strutted down the northern bank of Vaigai, donning the Trash Protectress. “I am happy to be part of a great cause,” she says. Her friend, Manju holds green leaves and a placard displaying the ‘recycle’ symbol. “I am the Vaigai Devi, symbolising prosperity and natural wealth,” smiles Manju. Following the girls, a large posse of housewives, self-help-group women, college students, citizens and few big-wigs of the town walked a distance of over five kilometres along the river, holding banners that called for the cause of a clean Vaigai.

On Tuesday, the grand show of the pageant was replete with colourful processions of mulaipaari, water pots, Karagattam, Oyilattam and Kavadi. For over a month, the artisans of Kuruthur Village near Alagar Kovil had worked on the props, masks and other numerous elements for the rally. Prakash who has made a set of big and small 3D models of fish out of plastic cans and bamboo sticks, says, “It’s gratifying to see the result of the show. All our efforts have borne fruit.” Felicia Young of Earth Celebrations, who conceived the pageant, says, “I hope the people of Madurai take this first step to the next level by not polluting the river further.” Citing how her maiden project for the Hudson River at New York became successful with people’s participation, Felicia adds, “It’s a long consistent process to clean a river. Hudson was once highly polluted and today has beautiful parks, promenades and boating clubs along its banks. I wish the same kind of result for Vaigai.” At the beginning of the rally, the students of Fatima College read out poems they had written in praise of Vaigai. “The poems compare the past glory of Vaigai to the present sorry state that the river is in,” says S. Babiola Anna, who has written one of the poems. Verses from Thevaram and Silapathigaram, in praise of Vaigai were also sung during the procession. Pena Manoharan, a policeman-turned-poet who took part in the pageant recalls how he was abhorred by the sight of people defecating in the river on his first visit to the city in 1975. “Though, open defecation has come down these days, domestic waste should be stopped from being let into the river,” he says.

Mohammed Zubair, a student of DHAN Academy, hailing from Anand, Gujarat, compares the Vaigai with the Tapti. “Most rivers in India are highly polluted and there’s an urgent need to clean all of them.” Ashia, his friend, says, “The pageant will materialise only if people and the Government join hands. Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad is a success story only because of effective people-government collaboration. The city has a beautiful well-maintained river front.”

Along the route of the procession, residents living alongside the river, were honoured as river custodians.

“We have divided the stretch into 12 zones right from Kochadai to Viraganur and families living on the banks will be given the responsibility of maintaining their part of the river. As this is just a symbolic initiation, we plan to take up serious ground-level cleaning activities with these people,” says Gurunathan, the Director of DHAN-Vayalagam Foundation for the upkeep of water bodies.


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Need to protect and preserve the ancient river stressed.

The Vaigai riverbank was witness to a colourful pageant on Tuesday that sought to create awareness among the community of the need to protect and preserve the ancient river, the lifeline of Madurai.

The event was organised as part of the Vaigai River Restoration Project (VRRP), launched by Dhan Foundation on October 2 with the objective of restoring the legendary river to its old glory. The long-term project will be implemented in collaboration with New York-based Earth Celebrations, Asia Initiatives, district administration, Madurai Corporation and educational institutions.

The Vaigai River Restoration Pageant, according to Earth Celebrations, which was involved in the restoration of the Hudson with community involvement, attempted to “raise 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.”

Addressing the participants, the Collector, L. Subramanian, highlighted the need for people’s participation in such an initiative. The Executive Director of Dhan Foundation, M. P. Vasimalai, said that action groups would be formed along the banks as custodians of the river to prevent dumping of garbage and flow of sewage.

More colleges in Madurai district had shown a keen interest in associating themselves with the project, Mr. Vasimalai said and added that it would evolve around a long-term sustainable plan. Felicia Young of Earth Celebrations shared her Hudson experience with the participants.

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River Vaigai is an eyesore today. Scant rainfall, garbage and relentless pollution over the years has turned the river into a dumping yard. Why is the river so brutally abused?

“Only the community that uses and needs the river can honour and protect it,” says Felicia Young, the Founder and Executive Director of “Earth Celebrations”, a non-profit organisation in New York. “People have to come together to ensure that the negative actions that pollute and exploit the river for the gain of a few are kept in check,” she asserts.

But the Vaigai has the potential of becoming a grand waterway again, says Felicia. The native third generation New Yorker who is also a community cultural development artist and theatrical pageant director is working on Vaigai River Restoration Pageant (VRRP) with local stakeholders and aims to stop further ruin of the river.

In the last 20 years, Felicia has, through advocacy projects and theatrical pageants, effected preservation of the community gardens in New York city, addressed climate change and restored the species and habitats of the once polluted Hudson river.

Madurai’s Chithirai festival is the source of inspiration for Felicia, she says. During a visit to the Temple town in 1989, she witnessed the famous celestial wedding of Goddess Meenakshi. So inspired was she by the festival pageant that she decided to use music, painting, sculpture, puppetry, dance, poetry, performance and ceremony that she saw being used in Madurai, as a means of getting communities back home to work together. She worked with the arts in New York from 1991 to 2005. “I engaged people from diverse communities to work together creatively for a common goal,” she says.

According to Felicia, it worked as a catalyst to mobilise the community at grassroots level, won support of elected officials, media and philanthropists and resulted in saving hundreds of community gardens in the city.

The positive change motivated her to create her next project, the Hudson River Pageant from 2009 to 2012 to highlight the restoration of the species and habitats of the Hudson River Estuary in New York City. This time round she engaged the community for educational and recreational activities such as oyster planting to organically cleanse the river, rowing and kayaking as new recreational uses of the river, wetlands planting to mitigate flood damage, river clean-ups to clear away garbage, recycling ceremonies, promoting waste solutions and fish release programmes.

Felicia is confident that the educative and innovative VRRP will get people to initiate positive change.

There was a time when the Vaigai River was a lifeline for the region. Along its banks, people hunted, fished and lived, settlements were established which later powered the area’s industrial growth. But, construction of the dam affected its flow and the release of industrial and bio-medical waste and domestic sewage into the river and decreasing rainfall has led to the river’s woeful state.

Felicia was shocked to see further deterioration in Vaigai when she visited Madurai recently. “The
Vaigai seems more barren than ever and the crisis is more severe than ever,” she says. “Unless every citizen curbs production of waste, pollution and environmental destruction, ecological balance cannot be restored.”

Felicia is of the opinion that art does not only have to reflect life but can effect it too by inspiring peoples’ imagination and bringing them together to address crucial issues. “Every city has public spaces that define it. But these monuments to urban life don’t build themselves. Communities come together to create them,” she says, and adds, “I am inspired to make this project happen and it is only a start in turning the river into a truly vibrant public space.”

Helping her out are environmental organizations, academic institutions, washermen and farming groups, activists, government and district administration representatives and corporation councillors, corporate bodies and industrialists, cultural institutions, artists, performers and the common man of Madurai. They are scheduled to hold their first meeting in early August.

A reimagining of Vaigai river’s place in modern Madurai may perhaps gain unprecedented traction in the coming days. And as Felicia says, “Gandhi utilized ‘non-violent resistance’ as social action to create change. VRRP provides a creative approach, engaging people through the arts and ‘joyous affirmation’ as social action to create positive change”.

“The Vaigai seems more barren than ever and the crisis is more severe than ever.”


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Padmini Sivarajah,TNN | May 1, 2015, 03.23 AM IST

MADURAI: The city is gearing up for a grand pageant, a first-of-its-kind activity for the area that will showcase the rich heritage of the Vaigai River in a move to protect and restore the river to its past glory. Artisans and replicas of all things connected to the river will walk the pageant on May 12, under the initiative of Earth Celebrations.

Earth Celebrations, which restored the Hudson River in New York, is holding the event in cooperation with Dhan Foundation.

Founder director of the organisation Felicia Young said the pageant was just the beginning of long journey top restore the river.

Work is on at full swing at the Tata Dhan Academy, where eager artisans design structures for the event. Bamboo expert Prakash bends and tweaks the sticks to design fishes like Maharam, Machameen, Viraal and the Vellichi, now extinct but once found in abundance in the river. Maharam was a symbol of the Pandiya dynasty and can be seen on its flag. One of the models is almost 21 feet high.

The organisers have asked the people of the city to save their used plastic and tin cans as the fish which is going to be brought to the city on Saturday would be decorated with the trash cans by the people of the city themselves, including students and anyone who is interested.

The trash cans would signify the detrimental effects of such materials on earth’s life forms. They have also asked the people to come dressed in blue, to signify the earth and the river

Artisans Ravi and Amudha in Alagarkoil are making a ‘kali’ with 16 hands which will hold the trash cans and litter. A second ‘kali’ would depict the restored Vaigai River and carry forms that would signify green, wind and water.

The organisers say that unlike other rivers, Vaigai is polluted only by the people inhabiting its banks and all steps are being taken to educate the people living along the banks.

Dhan foundation’s programme co-ordinator K Akila Devi has painstakingly coordinated with the people living along the banks of the river in the city and formed groups with a leader who will be the ‘custodian of the river’. These custodians would be honoured during the pageant.

The pageant would start from the Kamarajar Bridge in the city and end at the AV Bridge. The pageant would include native dancers, model horses decorated with polluting objects and nine stage ‘Kavadis’ which will celebrate earth’s life forms. A bullock cart will carry a giant decorated kadamba pot.

Sixty women in colourful clothes would carry pots containing water from all the water sources in the city and at the end of the pageant, the ‘kadamba’ pot will be filled with it and then poured into the river.

Students of Fatima College are coming out with poetry on the river, which would be displayed on a rickshaw during the pageant.
The pageant is just the beginning and will have to be sustained through the participation of every citizen of Madurai, say the organisers, because it is the beginning of a vision.

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TNN | Nov 27, 2014, 03.35AM IST

MADURAI: City mayor V V Rajan Chellappa on Wednesday undertook an inspection of the Vaigai river where cleaning operation is being carried. Meanwhile, the Vaigai River Restoration Pageant has planned to recover the grand waterway by restoring its historic value.

The mayor has ordered cleaning operations of the Vaigai river after appointing 200 corporation workers. An initiative was also being taken to plant trees along the Vaigai to add beauty to its existence.

Chellappa said, “We have also planned for an eviction drive to remove all the encroachments along the Vaigai river and expand the roads along it to make it useful for commuters.”

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For press on recent and continuing restoration actions:

Panel to Guide Vaigai River Restoration Soon

Vaigai Restoration Works to Begin from October 10

Columbia Architects Will Travel India Work Clean Major River

Students in Action for Vaigai Restoration