Seriously. It is an art, that most people master by the time they are seventy or something. Some exceptional folk become experts much before that, but for many, it is like appreciating paintings - we love paintings but we don't know enough to pass an intelligent opinion on them. Such is the case with the Malayali vivaha sadya: We love them and claim that the payasams are the only reason we attend weddings, but we do not know how to tackle it.
If you are not a Malayali, even a lifetime would not be enough to master the art of devouring the sadya, unless you're determined and dedicated. I remember a few bewildered Kannadiga friends at a Malayali wedding (about fifteen years ago, in Thiruvananthapuram) seated before their untouched sadya, holding a lemon and whispering to me, "What are we supposed to do with this?"
Let me start at the very beginning. The vivaha sadya begins where scene-2 depicted in this post, ends. The art of pushing through and snatching the vacant seats is one of the first lessons of vivaha sadya. Even the biggest hall in the history of Malayali weddings are not equipped to handle the rush. Many disappointed faces can be seen exiting the hall, after their futile search for a chair, hoping for better luck next time. After all, experience is everything. They position themselves by the entrance, ready to burst in when the doors open for the next sitting.
The lucky ones (and you can tell by their broad smiles, as they adjust their deranged sarees or crumbled shirts) wait in their seats at the table. (They are the ones who undoubtedly always win the musical chair competitions across the world.) The caterers quickly place banana leaves before them.
Once you are seated, you are allowed a few micro-seconds to look around to see if you recognise someone and wave at them before turning back to your banana leaf. In the next few fleeting minutes, a number of men (women haven't yet ventured into this area, I presume, but I may be wrong) pass before you, plopping different pickles, upperis, thorans, kichadi, pachadi, aviyal, pappadam onto your banana leaf. You do nothing but wait. You can sample the curries or take a bite into the pappadam while you wait. But realise, the waiting is essential.
Next comes the rice. You sit forward. Your patience is about to be rewarded. You are ready to start the race, err, I mean, the rice. As soon as the rice falls on your banana leaf, you make a partition at the middle. Close on the heals of the rice, come the parippu and the ghee. This part is important: don't look up from your rice unless it is to see how close the next server is, and what he is bringing.
You have to concentrate on mixing the rice, parippu and ghee with pappadam and sending it on its way down your throat. However, your concentration must not be such that you do not notice the caterers passing before you. You should keep gesturing 'yes' or 'no' otherwise you will find sambar dropped on top of your rice - and you had not even asked for it. It may also happen that the payasam will pass by because you didn't say 'yes'. If you are relatively inexperienced, you would not know what it is that they bring. You would not get time to ask what it is, receive a reply, ponder over it and then say 'yes.' Such delays and light conversation are not welcomed (by the servers). The knowledge comes over time, so 'wait, suffer and learn' are the only things to be done.
The payasam comes in between. If you know the course of the sadya very well, you can tell exactly the minute at which it will be brought, and you will be ready with a gap in your rice to receive it. The different payasams (there may be two or three) also come together with half a minute between them. The more the number of payasams, the more prosperous are the hosts. There was a time I thought the payasams signified the end of the sadya and was surprised when more rice was plopped on top of my double payasam mix. (That sadya was a disaster I would rather not remember.)
You should also gulp down the water in the plastic cup quickly because then you can ask for the payasam or moru or rasam in it, if you like. You can ask for all of them in the cup, except that you don't get three cups, so the gulping down must happen fast, as soon as each arrives. If by mistake your plastic cup falls on the floor, you are doomed. It is not likely you will get another one.
It is important to keep up with the others. When the sadya is over (the signal being the folding of the banana leaf), people from one end start rising. You really don't want to be found sitting alone slurping your payasam, when the next set barges in for their food. So you see, even though you are absorbed in your food, you also pay close attention to the servers, the (eating) status of the others and the general atmosphere in the hall.
It is very difficult to come out of a wedding sadya without showing traces of it in your dress/saree/shirt. But again, with experience, you will learn to dodge the right way at the right places at the right times, and come through with your clothes stainless.
Everything about tackling the sadya lies in precision and rapidness, which, as I mentioned, come only with experience.
As for the lemon mentioned above, I suspect it symbolises (among other things) the fact that life most often gives you lemons, and it is all up to you what you choose to do with it. Some people take it home and make lemonade, some make lemon rice, some throw it away when they leave the marriage hall, some say 'no' when they are offered the lemon. Think and act responsibly where the lemon is concerned.
Any mistakes in the above narration may be attributed to my lack of expertise, even after years of attending vivaha sadyas.
As I said, it might take a lifetime...