The kolu today has grown into something more than just a set of dolls collected lovingly over the years. It has become a platform for novel interpretations of mythology, where tradition meets cultural change. Here are a few women who have made interesting themes part of their kolu. Sujatha Shankar Kumar tells you more

Stagecraft

A traveller walks along, carrying his lamb, when three strangers see him and want the lamb for themselves. They hatch a plot. One after the other, they accost the man and taunt him — “It’s a donkey you are carrying. Set it down.” The bewildered traveller finally puts the lamb down and the strangers take it away. “Believe in what you have and do not heed to false instructions”, illustrates Archana Kalpathi in one of her scenes from The Panchatantra for this kolu. In a series of vividly constructed scenarios, Archana demonstrates a skill that combines storytelling with set design. She sources her miniature toys from all over the world, passionate about getting the right fit and expression. The lion appears to be listening to the hare, his head inclined in The Lion And The Hare. When a hunter traps doves in a wide net, in three sequences, the white doves take flight with the net and escape — “If we stay together, we win”. Archana, CEO of AGS Cinemas, takes time off her busy schedule and acknowledges the role of artisans who team with her for the effort. As she goes around describing each scene, you realise that her care for detail, aesthetic sensibilities and love for telling a story all come together in her kolu. She dedicates this interest to her five-year-old son.

The world of Ganeshas

At the entrance to Suganthi’s kolu, a happy Ganesha with toffees greets you. I walk through to meet not a few but 2,000 Ganeshas. They are everywhere — in the cricket stadium, batting and bowling; pundits with manuscripts teaching mice; tailoring clothes; and lifting barbells at the Olympics. “He’s a friendly God,” says Suganthi. “So, he won’t mind!” Between the piano-playing Ganesha and rats carrying Ganesha on a palanquin, consumerism ideologies filter in. “Ticket only 9999/-” reads a note outside a stage where Ganeshas are performing kathak. At a wedding where Ganeshas are cooks turning grinding stones and chopping vegetables, guest Ganeshas line up for the feast where a placard reads — “No meal without a token”. Suganthi’s exploration of advertising and commercialisation seeping into all social activities is packed with quirky humour and caricaturing.

Literary quests

Lakshmi Jayaraman’s association with kolu has been for over 17 years. “I love literature,” she says. “So why not kolu as a medium to express my passion?” She delved into the Periyapuraanam, and Nayanmars — the 63 Saivite saints, were the focus of one kolu. When her daughter was expecting a child, she fondly brought out the ‘paruvams’ of Pillaithamizhl, stages in which the poet imagines the deity as a child. Lakshmi once displayed the seven stages of man from Shakespeare’s As You Like It for television. “There should be change — innovation and new meanings,” says Lakshmi, whose theme Mitri augmented friendship in classic forms — Wordsworth and Coleridge, Arjuna and Krishna, and a whimsical depiction of R.K. Narayan’s Swami And Friends as a cricket-playing team. Plurality of thought and inclusion of ideas make up the liberal atmosphere of Lakshmi’s kolu.

Creative expressions

In the Mohan Raman family where both husband Mohan Raman and daughter Vidyu are artists and actors, Padma Mohan Ram takes the centrestage at Navaratri. “Once she gets an idea, she will pursue it with determination and vigour,” says Mohan Raman even as Padma gives him credit for the unusual concepts that spring up at their home.

A gym ball covered with shiny diamond-patterned blue and gold paper becomes the world; a clay Vinayaka is adorned with a huge gold-laced arasa ilai (peepul leaf); a temple gopuram recreated with tiny multi-coloured clay and wooden dolls; a pool with floating lamps reflecting flickering flames in water; and the Aarupadaiveedu — six abodes of Lord Muruga… all these and more form Padma’s repertoire. “I wanted to depict movement in the universe,” she says about her Navagraha last year, where she suspended nine marapaachi dolls with the Sun God and white horses in the centre. Below, are kolams with Navadhanyam — nine-variety grains.