Everything in the kolu arrangement at the home of 88-year-old GS Kalpakam at Kasturi Estate in Radhakrishnan Salai offers a mixed flavour of history, tradition and culture.
Three important life stages in the life of poet and saivite ascetic Kumaragurupara are shown through the kolu arrangement in the living room, which is not the usual set of steps with dolls on them, but a rich tableau featuring giant Gowri dolls made of wood.
Octogenarian Kalpakam brings vibrant storytelling to the figurines and dolls she has displayed. She notes her late mother-in-law Sundariammal imparted storytelling skills to her.
The Gowri dolls brought from Mysore to TT Srinivasamurti household, first in 1955, are showstoppers every year, along with a new theme that is chosen after a lot of research and deliberation.
While Kalpakam is the main architect of the kolu arrangement, she is helped by her daughter-in-law Gauri, daughter Mathangi, granddaughter Bhavani and others in the family.
Each of them takes up a different role. Tasks include dressing up the dolls with different attires, doing the backdrop, giving the voice-over and giving a digital touch to the display. The wooden bommais are unique as every part is dismantled after the Navarathri celebrations every year to be placed in boxes and taken out the next year.
TS Tirumurti, Kalpakam’s son and former ambassador of India to the United Nations, says the entire family comes together during Navarathri with each of them taking up one role.
“We have four generations taking part in the celebrations, and it is essentially a tradition passed down from one daughter-in-law to the next,” he says.
In 2019, a video on the theme “Shiva” had Kalpakam giving the commentary, explaining the significance, and her son also lending voice to it.
“I am doing everything based on what my mother-in-law taught me and now the next generation is helping me carry the tradition forward,” she says in the video, adding that the aim is to make it both educational and entertaining.
The theme is different each year, mostly inspired by the puranas. Women’s role in the freedom struggle and episodes from the Ramayana are some of them.
Planning for the big event starts at least a month in advance and much of the work is done at home. “We have to know the story and the crucial parts in it so that we can select the most appealing parts of it,” says Tirumurti.
For guests taking a tour of the figurines, a description is written against them.
Another integral aspect of the kolu exercise is the involvement of youngsters. “Many a time, we give them space to make their own kolus, and these occupy space along with the other kolus,” says Tirumurti.