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TAMIL NADU
‘Moi virundhu’: How Tamil Nadu’s traditional crowd-funding feast evolved over the years

Kathelene Antony



S Sundar


AUGUST 25, 2019 00:44 IST
UPDATED: AUGUST 25, 2019 09:59 IST



With each passing year, “moi virundhu” events appear to be getting larger. Families now engage banks to collect and transport the cash from the venue and special software is used to record details regarding the guests’ contributions.

In parts of central and southern districts, the traditional moi virundhu is a source of crowd-funding during hard times. A family feeds the community and is bestowed with cash gifts by invitees, a favour that is appreciated, recorded in ledgers, and returned, when there is an opportunity in the future. Today, with the help of technology, the event seems to have scaled past its modest origins

A narrow road cuts through verdant paddy fields and coconut groves at Vadakadu village, located some 30 km from Pudukottai district in central Tamil Nadu. Just months ago, the place had faced the wrath of Cyclone Gaja, and some of the trees felled remain untouched, to tell a sorry tale.
But the mood in the village is far from gloomy, as it is ready for festivities. Large, flashy flex boards on either side of the road announce a moi virundhu, a sort of crowd-funded gathering over a feast, spread over the entire Tamil month of Aadi.

Moi virundhu, in its traditional form, used to be a poor person’s call for help, where one would organise a feast for friends and family in times of distress in return for monetary help. But over the past decade or so, the custom has evolved into an annual feature when families take turns to organise the feast, and raise money. And after natural calamities such as Cyclone Gaja, their numbers too seem to increase.
Despite the penetration of banks, the tradition continues to remain popular in parts of Thanjavur, Pudukottai and Madurai districts. In Madurai district, it goes by different names — illa vizha (family function) or vasantha vizha (spring function). Both these functions have no ritual or ceremony, but are organised with the sole objective of collecting moi — cash gifts.

“Such functions were unheard of in earlier days. Tamil literature has no such mention. These are modern day inventions like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day,” says retired Tamil Professor and film personality Ku. Gnanasambandan.
But with each passing year, the feasts appear to become bigger. So much so that families now rope in banks to collect and transport the cash from the venue. Special software is also being used to enter details about the contribution of each guest.
At Vadakadu, the gathering happens under a makeshift shed with metal sheets and in the midst of festive music, where 17 people — the organisers of the feast, all clad in white — welcome guests with folded hands.
But, there’s one more step before getting to taste the virundhu. In what seems like an elaborate arrangement, relatives of the organisers sit under rows of banners with registers to receive the moi. The banners carry the pictures of each of the organisers — some of whom have multiple flex boards for each of the villages from where he expects his guests.

Nowadays, people organise “moi virundu” feasts in groups to split expenditure, often erecting separate flex boards for each organiser.


Nowadays, people organise “moi virundu” feasts in groups to split expenditure, often erecting separate flex boards for each organiser. | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

“It has come a long way from the actual tradition — something you find depicted in the movie Chinna Gounder,” says Karthik, a relative of R. Pushparaj, one of the 17 organisers. “People now organise moi virundhu in groups to reduce the cost and everything is done in a systematic manner here.” One would expect nothing less, given the fact that the feasts often rake in money to the tune of crores of rupees.
After making their contribution, the guests head off to the feast. Ten workers have slaved overnight to cook about 400 kg of mutton and 800 kg of rice. By 3 a.m., a large feast of rice and mutton curry is ready to cater to nearly a thousand people. More uncooked rice and meat is kept in store, in case the turnout surpasses expectations. Before the pots start boiling, a ritual is performed the previous night at the organisers’ in-laws’ houses to announce the feast. “The register, cash box, and even the pen used have to come from the parents-in-law as a gift,” says Mr. Pushparaj.
After parting with their money, the guests go home content with the food, while the organisers, who have their coffers full, turn debtors — unlike in the traditional version of the custom. The records of moi given will be safely preserved, for generations with the family, and the return gifts will have to be commensurate, or more.
R. Karuppiah, a village elder, has seen the custom change over the years. “When I was a child, moi was given during a celebration like an ear-piercing ceremony, child-naming, weddings and such. Earlier, it was about people helping others, now it is like a chit fund, where the occasion itself is the virundhu organised to raise the money paid and some more,” he says.
There are unwritten, yet rigid, social norms which dictate the payment of moi. It has to be paid when the donor organises a virundhu, or within five years before it is their turn to organise the feast again. The practice has become popular as it is seen as a loan without interest. When one pays the moi back, they can choose the extra amount, to maintain goodwill. “It is all based on honour and pride. You keep giving money until it is your turn to take a lump sum. It has become a vicious cycle,” says Mr. Karuppiah.
“Earlier, people used to offer small sums like ₹10 or ₹50, depending upon how much cash they felt comfortable parting with, but now the lowest one receives is ₹500,” says Mr. Karuppiah. Individual contributions go as high as ₹10,000-20,000.
In late July, a moi virundhu organised by R. Krishnamoorthy, who runs a flex printing shop in Vadakadu, made headlines after he reportedly raked in as much as ₹4 crore from a feast that served about 1,000 people. “He made so much money because in the last five years, he invested a significant amount in others’ moi virundhu,” explains Mr. Karthik.
Unofficial estimates say that moi virundhu season collection is around ₹250 crore a year in the district, which also brings its share of problems. “At least one incident of assault and break-in is reported every year. This happens when an individual is not able to pay back the money,” says a police officer in the Vadakadu police station. Sometimes, the organiser also names and shames those who were unable to return the money, he adds.
Some have come to view the moi virundhu as a business, says K. Adaikalam, president, Agamudayar Charitable and Education Trust. “Sometimes, businessmen organising the event turn loan sharks.” After keeping the money that they require, the rest is loaned out at high interest. This practice is unique to this region, insists Mr. Adaikalam, who claims that this form of moi virundhu was born in his birthplace, Peravurani in Thanjavur district, and spread to neighbouring places. A vasantha vizha would be a like a traditional crowd-funding practice without an obligation to pay the money back, he says.

Relatives of the “moi virundhu” organisers sit with registers and make meticulous records that are preserved, and the return gifts are expected to be commensurate during any future events.


Relatives of the “moi virundhu” organisers sit with registers and make meticulous records that are preserved, and the return gifts are expected to be commensurate during any future events. | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

Interest-free loan
In earlier days, every family had five to six children and there was no dearth of domestic functions when friends and well-wishers would contribute cash gifts. “But, now many families have one or two children and hence, the illa vizha concept helps us conduct a function without any solid reason,” says S. Santhanam of Usilampatti.
He adds that illa vizha and vasantha vizha are popular with the Piraimalai Kallar community. “It is a practice wherein the community comes forward to help an economically poor or a needy person with money. For practical purposes, it is an interest-free loan,” he explains.
He claims that he had conducted two events through which he collected ₹55 lakh and ₹45 lakh in the past. “My economic status has gone up since then. I was able to do something good for the family such as buying a house or jewellery for the family,” he says.
Just as in the Nadar community wherein the community elders extend financial help to the poor in setting up a business or a grocery shop to lift them up economically, the Mukkulathors have adopted this practice of conducting a feast for collecting moi, says M. Murugan of Sellur. This concept of pooling money by the community for some family’s well-being emerged in the late 1990s.
Every household in the community maintains accounts of the moi received or given. People flip through the notebooks to verify how much moi someone gave them during a family function so that they can repay accordingly.
“If I had paid ₹5,000 moi to someone, he is expected to repay ₹6,000 or ₹10,000, depending upon our relationship and his economic status. And the amount multiplies significantly with every transaction between us. But, if the same person does not want to continue the practice with me, he will return ₹5,100, signifying that the account is closed. We need not pay moi to each other thereafter,” Mr. Murugan explains.
Mr. Santhanam says that many families belonging to the Piramali Kallar community have come up in life with moi collection alone. “Which bank will give loans without any collateral? And where will these people go for collateral,” he asks. But, the community will generously give moi even to those whose credibility is not great. “The collection has been as high as ₹1.5 crore in Sellur alone,” recalls Mr. Murugan.
“While more than 80% of the people invest the collection well, some fail to make good use of the money and go bankrupt. Some even flee the village,” Mr. Santhanam says.
As the practice of moi virundhu caught on, there was need for someone to keep record. In Vadakadu village, a man running a photocopying shop has become the book-keeper and almost has a monopoly over the business. His shop sells a cheque book of sorts with details such as names of the donor, their father, and address. Each of the leaves has blank space to enter the moi figure. The filled-in leaves are handed over to the people at the desk by the guests.

A meal of mutton curry and rice is prepared for a “moi virundhu”, organised in the Tamil month of Aadi in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district on August 2, 2019.


A meal of mutton curry and rice is prepared for a “moi virundhu”, organised in the Tamil month of Aadi in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district on August 2, 2019. | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

The shop also sells a register with a list of all moi virundhu events taking place. “When I started, I went door-to-door to collect details. Now, the organisers make sure they come and register here, otherwise, guests may not know about the event at all if it does not get on the register,” says V. Subramaniam, who owns the store. He prints at least 250 of the ‘cheque books’ that sells for ₹100, while 1,000 copies of the register fly off the shelves every year at a price of ₹50.
As the years passed, and the money in circulation increased, technology found its way into the tradition. Moi Tecch, an Android app and software service developed by M. Prabhu, has been making waves in these parts. Those who organise the virundhu hire Mr. Prabhu’s team to keep a record of the moi received. “We replace the men with registers, make entries on a computer and print out a register for the organiser to keep, reducing the use of paper, manpower and improving accuracy,” Mr. Prabhu says. Those who have Android phones also download the app to keep an easily accessible e-register. Each of the persons equipped with a computer comes at a price of ₹3,000. “Those keeping record in books charge more than this and often make terrible errors,” he says.
Mr. Prabhu, a graduate in business administration, has a dedicated team that uses laptops, printers, currency-counting machines and mobile apps to collect moi at the venue. “We give thermal paper receipts to those who pay moi. An app given to the customer will help him know the update of collection on a real-time basis. Since receipts are given to those giving moi, the accounts are clean,” he says.
For every 400 entries, one laptop and two persons are employed for which the company charges ₹3,500. While one person will make entries in the laptop, another person will collect the money. “I have sent as many as 25 teams to a single feast,” he says.
Besides transparency in collection, the computerised moi collection is also user-friendly. “The names those who paid are given in alphabetical order and also village-wise/town-wise entries are made so that people can easily find out how much was given by any individual,” Mr. Prabhu says.

Gentle reminders
Since moi is seen as more than just a gift, the community also has a practice of reminding people about how much they need to repay. “For instance, an invitation could read: Happy to meet you again after 2010. This means the person invited will have to verify accounts of moi he received (from the person inviting) at all the functions he organised since 2010 and repay accordingly,” Mr. Santhanam says.
When someone makes an underpayment, he is openly reminded of that after verifying the moi account once the function gets over. “It is only an exaggeration in movies that people fight over the amount. The reminder could go through a common friend or a relative or through a phone call,” says Mr. Murugan. The moi collection is also announced on a public address system in some villages.







‘Moi virundhu’: How Tamil Nadu’s traditional crowd-funding feast evolved over the years
 

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