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Monday, October 15, 2001

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The doll story

Despite changes in lifestyles and tastes, the colourful kolu, the essence of the Navaratri celebrations, is adapting itself to modern times, says S. SURESH.

NAVARATRI... the word brings to mind images of the kolu, that colourful exhibition of dolls, arranged at homes. But when exactly did this beautiful and unique tradition originate? No one knows for sure.

The tradition has been in existence for at least 500 years, from the reign of the Vijayanagar kings. Some of the inscriptions mention the Navaratri kolu. An old Marathi record at the Saraswathi Mahal library (Thanjavur) mentions the supply of dolls representing people belonging to 18 different castes for the Navaratri kolu. The kolu tradition, it is believed, was popular among the royal families of Thanjavur and Pudukkottai.

The kolu is not confined to India alone. It is followed in many Asian countries, especially Sri Lanka and Japan. In fact, the Japanese version of our Navaratri kolu is known as Hina Masturi.

Until a few years ago, Navaratri was, next to Deepavali, the most important festival for families living in big cities.

The kolu is the essence of Navaratri celebrations. Earlier, preparations for the kolu would begin months in advance. The dolls, wrapped in cotton rags and neatly stacked in huge wooden trunks, are carefully taken out, dusted, mended and sometimes, given a fresh coat of paint. Some artistically inclined women would craft a couple of new dolls for the occasion each year.

Days before the festival, rows of shops selling kolu dolls suddenly sprang up on the pavements of Mylapore, Triplicane, Mambalam and many other residential areas of the city. The shopkeepers procured the dolls from places as far as Madurai, Thanjavur and Banrutti (Panruti).

Those days, houses were spacious, joint families were common and people had lots of leisure. Hence, the arrangements were grand and elaborate. Usually, a whole room was devoted for the kolu. The dolls were displayed on the kolupadis or steps made of wood and covered with a thick cloth. The number of steps was always an odd number — three, five, seven or nine. The more the steps, the merrier!

The dolls were mostly mud icons of various gods and goddesses painted in bright colours. Some families displayed dolls made of rosewood, sandalwood and ivory.

A Ramayana set, a Dasavatara set, a set of musicians and the ubiquitous pot-bellied smiling Chettiar and his equally plump wife... these were most common in most arrangements! Many kolus also had a miniature kitchen — various utensils made of soapstone or brass, which were filled with grains and pulses. Then, there were fruits and vegetables made of mud or wood and painted... they would look almost.

The floor space on the sides and the front of the steps was landscaped to feature a village, gardens, parks and temples.

The most popular was the temple scenes. Sand, painstakingly gathered from the Marina, would be used to lay the narrow streets surrounding the temple. The mini-temple was either built of mud or bought. The temple invariably had an imposing gopuram. If it was a Murugan temple, it was placed on a small hillock. The temple had a mud tank in the front. A brass trough normally served as the tank.

Today, quite a few things have changed. The compulsions of modern life have made elaborate kolus a thing of the past. Nuclear families have replaced joint families and many youngsters have also migrated to the West. The majestic agraharam houses in Mylapore and Triplicane and the spacious bungalows in Alwarpet and Adyar are demolished to make way for apartment buildings.

In a two bedroom flat, devoting even a small corner, leave alone a whole room, for the kolu is difficult. Also, with most women working today, they have little time or energy to design huge kolus. Many women have given away their kolu dolls, some dating back to the days of their great great grandmothers, to neighbours and friends. Some of the kolu dolls now find a place in the dust- free glass cases and curio-brackets in the drawing rooms of our flats. A few dolls have even migrated to the U.S. to adorn the drawing rooms there!

Yet, fortunately, Chennai has a sizeable number of families that are struggling hard to keep the kolu tradition alive.

Innovation and substitution appear to be the watchwords for the present-day kolus. The traditional wooden steps have vanished from most homes and some families now use iron kolupadis which can be converted into bookshelves after the event. Many families build the steps out of big boxes and outsized dictionaries.

The dolls are not restricted to those of gods and goddesses. Now there are dolls dressed in traditional costumes of different Indian States and the countries. The air-hostess dolls are often seen on display in the homes of foreign-returned families. Then there are postman dolls in his khaki uniform and with a mailbag, the doctor with his stethoscope, the shopkeeper with his wares. Designer kolus exhibit, besides dolls, colourful books, stamps, coins, medals, paintings, charts, toys and board games. Fancy lighting and installations and computer graphics too are used as part of the decorations.

The floor is no longer limited to village scenes and temples as children are discouraged from bringing sand and clay in to the flat. Instead, events such as the general elections, the Kargil war and the Olympic games are featured.

A new development is the thematic kolu where the entire kolu, both on the steps and on the floor, revolves round a particular theme. India's freedom struggle was a popular theme in1997, when the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of its Independence.

A few years ago, a resident of Adyar had a kolu of exotic plants, complete with a colourful rangoli featuring a farmer with his bullocks. An English professor once had a kolu depicting scenes from Shakespearean plays. And then there are quite a few kolus featuring lifestyles and customs of foreign lands.

Another novel trend is the concept of `community kolus'. Many women, unable to keep kolu in their homes, join hands and put up a kolu in a common place.

Community kolus besides promoting team spirit and neighbourhood amity, also reflect the collective talent and imagination.

For children, the kolu provides a nine-day crash course on hard work, discipline and courtesy. The children do their bit... by keeping the room clean, inviting and serving guests.

Despite the Internet and various other forms of infotainment, the colourful kolu is adapting itself to the changing needs of Chennai.

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