Hi Usha, it’s the Navarathri season again, and I can never forget the kolu at your home years ago, so much fun it used to be,” said a friend of mine earlier this week. I was reminded of the lovely times we used to have back in our school days. Of course, we had our holidays and that was great reason to feel happy and the other was house-hopping, to see the kolu arrangement in various homes of both relatives and neighbours.

As return gifts we used to carry home a small packet of sundal or a set of bangles or may be just the traditional vethilai pakku (containing a couple of betel leaves with betel nuts) with a banana or two. Whatever we got from different from homes were special to us and we used to safely deposit them back home or just eat them up on our way back. We were asked to sing a song or two which was a form of worship in itself. As kids we did not have any problem at all doing so and were just inhibition-less. Even the kolu back then used to be very simple yet high in tradition and culture. At no point did we ever miss out on getting our daily dose of culture and tradition, thanks to the grandparents at home.

The dolls would vary from the dasavatharam set, to the chettiar dolls (the traditional businessmen), wooden dolls (marapachi), and of course the likes of Ganesha, Krishna, and some members of the divine fraternity. As an additional entertainer for kids, we used to have a small makeshift park set up on the floor onto the sides of the kolu padi (stand). This park was easily made with some sand and sprouts, the latter added to the greenery of the artificial park! We would have a cow in plastic grazing on this newly ‘sprouted’ field; paying tribute to the cattle and agriculture since the dolls are primarily made of clay, so the demand for clay was on the rise during this time. Our kolu used to be simple and most of the houses we visited were just variations within this ambit, perhaps with a few dolls extra or lesser, albeit times were still simple.

Things have changed quite drastically these days, though; the basics of culture and tradition is still intact in terms of the types of dolls featuring in the kolu stands of various homes. We still have the classic chettiar dolls and the humble marapachi dolls and the likes of Ganesha and Krishna and the entire divine fraternity. Nonetheless, kolu has come to exist more as a show of tradition rather than tradition and culture being upheld. Back then, we only used to wrap these dolls in some unused muslin or sari to prevent breakage and safely put them in the attic so that they could be used for the next year; occasionally, a few dolls got added over the years. Not once did we get bored with the collection, we were only proud of our inventory of dolls and used to eagerly await their display on our kolu stand for the year.

With changing times of course, as in every other field, we have new dolls entering the display market each year. The North Mada Street in Mylapore, Chennai stands testimony to this. Come Navarathri, this street in particular becomes a hub of gods and goddesses on sale! It is definitely worth paying a visit to this street during this time of the year, if not to buy, at least to visually treat yourself with an array of dolls throughout the entire stretch. Dolls though are expensive unlike before, of course due to the rise in public demand. Kolu has become more of a showbiz and perpetuates competition amongst households.

The old world charm is lost, with Shiva or Krishna assuming newer looks. The colours used are quite dashing too as against their counterparts of the past. With kolu no longer being restricted to a few odd-numbered steps, the variety is diverse and we even have thematic representations of the gods and goddesses.

For example, one household had an exclusive Ganesha theme and another a Krishna theme. As the dolls got more expensive, we expected an elevated status for the takeaways as well. Gone are the days of humble packets of sundal and banana. They are now one among the many back-presents that we could add to our kitty. It has become more of a social status these days to flaunt these dolls on display and to give away expensive gifts to visitors.

What one fails to understand though is, regardless of the countless designs and models of the gods and goddesses, the Navarathri Kolu season is more of a bonhomie of sorts rather than a mere display of clay and colours.

(The writer’s email: uramani18@gmail.com)

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