What a wonderful thing Kolu is, finds out Akila Kannadasan as she visits some households in the city where Navaratri is celebrated with great love, enthusiasm and artistry

Once upon a time, an art lover invited artisans from Thanjavur to his residence in Coimbatore. They were given the task of making specialised wooden dolls out of the kalyana murungai tree. The frames were constructed out of the light weight wood from the tree, and the figures were shaped using powdered tamarind seeds, chalk powder and saw-dust. The artisans adorned the dolls with pure gold leaves, mirrors and stones. Today, several decades later, the dolls still smile brightly as they sit on the kolu steps at the residence of S. Gurumurthy of Tatabad.

“The dolls belonged to my great, great grand-father,” explains Gurumurthy. “They are actually three dimensional representations of Thanjavur paintings.” The Sri Rama pattabhishekam with a bedecked Ram and Sita flanked by Lakshmanan, Bharathan and Shatrughnan is an example of the artisans' expertise. The gold leaves still have their gleam intact and the stones in the crowns are as good as new. Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati, the Gopikas, little Krishna, his mother Yashodha, the dancers in Rama's court, the kurta-clad musicians…they are works of art. The artisans have made kaasu maalais from one twelfth of an anna for the goddesses — inscribed on them in tiny lettering is ‘India 1901.'

At Rama Venkat's kolu, there are more interesting stories. Her wooden Nala Gowri bommais have been passed on to her by her ancestors. They have movable arms and legs. Each year, Rama decides on a theme and starts work days before Navarathri. The theme this year is the celestial wedding of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar. Dressed in a maroon madisar, the ravishing bride looks life-like. Next to the couple is Gundodharan, Sundereswarar's guest known to have gobbled down the entire wedding feast. Rama has converted her entire living room into a kolu display. The TV shelf is transformed into Sabarimalai. Manikandan rides a tiger there, while Ayyappa presides inside a temple. There is a silvery water-fall too! There are rows of kolu dolls made of clay, most of them, antiques. “The models of two women at a water tap for example, is unique,” says Rama. So is her set of miniature brass utensils. A radio from yesteryear, a Yashica twin-lens reflex camera, a Halda typewriter, a pocket watch and a huge wall clock with ‘Mohamed & Co' printed on it, also find pride of place in her kolu. Rama has beautifully depicted the story of saint Gora Kumbhar, a devout potter who was so engrossed in the lord that he did not notice that he had trampled his kid to death when mixing clay.

Mythology is the theme of R. Padmini's kolu at R.S. Puram. Where did Krishna of Udupi come from? Who was Prahaladha and why did he suffer at the hands of his father Hiranyakashipu? How was he rescued by Lord Vishnu? Padmini's kolu tells the stories. She has also written down descriptions in Tamil for people to read.

She regales her visitors, especially children, with the stories. “I narrate them at least five times a day,” she smiles. “Children will remember them for life when dolls are involved.” Most of her kolu dolls are hand-made. She has made them out of cardboard, clay and plastic and has even designed their miniature costumes. Padmini says that she has been organising kolu for 42 years now. “I enjoy it,” she says. “For nine days, our house resembles a kalyana veedu.”