The Indian festival of Navarati that is being celebrated all over India at the moment, is observed in different ways across the country. Dedicated to the mother goddess, one of the traditions followed in South Indian homes during this time is to exhibit traditional dolls that serve to tell stories from Indian mythology.
Called Kolu in Tamil, Bommala Kolu in Telugu and Gombe Habba in Kannada, this doll exhibition is a tradition passed on from one generation to the other, and is popular among those from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka, and their diaspora.
According to tradition, women invited to this exhibition are given betel leaves, areca nuts, a gift, and some turmeric to take back home as these are considered symbols of prosperity. Devotional songs are also sung.
While Kolu dolls have traditionally been modeled on gods and goddesses, these days contemporary themes have become the norm.
Purists like siblings S. Aparna, S. Amarnath and S. Surendranath from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, who are often called as judges at Kolu exhibitions, feel that Kolus based on contemporary themes do not go with the spirit of the festival, which is victory of good over evil.
The siblings, who are called the “Mylapore Trio,” are taking forward the Kolu tradition started by their foster-parents Sumukhi and Rajasekharan many decades ago.
“We have seen Kolus based on the 9/11 attack and various other tragedies,” says Surendranath. “Those who died in those tragedies were innocent people. The only bloodshed Navaratri is associated with is demon Mahishasura being killed, not innocent people.”
“We would like to continue the tradition set by our foster-parents so there is no question of diluting the concept of Kolu by keeping anything that is not related to our mythology,” said Surendranath.
While in most households, Kolus are exhibited in one corner of the house, every nook and corner of this trio’s home has a Kolu doll. They also place Indian musical instruments like the “veena,” “tanpura,” and a harmonium around the house. This tradition is called “Paran Kolu” and is hardly seen these days.
This year, the trio has limited their Kolu showcase to just about 30 dolls. Usually, their Kolu is open to the public on all nine days of the Navaratri festival, but this time, due to the pandemic, they held a virtual Kolu-viewing ceremony.
“Each year we have hundreds of people visiting our house for the Kolu. They would even leave comments in our visitor’s diary,” says Surendranath.
While the Mylapore trio believe in holding on to their traditions, Delhi-based communications expert Bhavani Giddu sees nothing wrong in adding contemporary cross-cultural elements to her Kolu showcase.
Since her audience is a mix of north Indian and south Indian people, she has infused elements of both cultures in her exhibition.
She also has fun touches like a cricket set with players, an umpire and stumps. She says her personal favorite is a figurine of mythological character Gatotgaj eating up all the food.
Rajasthani musicians to Tamil folk artists to a Punjabi bride and groom to a south-Indian couple, a variety of dolls are usually a part of Giddu’s doll exhibition. She also plans to introduce some contemporary themes of social relevance.
“I have been planning a theme based on maternal and child health, breastfeeding, and ground-level health workers to showcase the great work they do. I will do it next year”, says Giddu.
Every year, Giddu buys a few additional dolls from Chennai and, at times, some from Delhi. In order to make the exhibition relatable to her colleagues from work, north Indian and south Indian friends and neighbors, Bhavani explains the significance of the dolls in detail.
“I had to explain why these dolls were displayed. That is when they understood that Kolu is a serious tradition that south Indians follow and not my individual quirk,” says Giddu.
On the food front, she keeps a mix of north Indian and south Indian cuisine ready for her guests. Her kidney bean preparation and cottage cheese with curry leaves is a great hit.
Nalini Rani, a native of Bengaluru in Karnataka, now living in Delhi, restarted this doll exhibition after a gap of 30 years. She retrieved her grandmother’s mud dolls this year so that she could restart a tradition her grandmother introduced her to.
Some of the dolls in her exhibition are 100-year-old antiques that she got polished and repaired. While the broader theme of her exhibition is the mother goddess, Ravi has shown life in rural Karnataka also.
A temple, potters at work, children playing, a bird sanctuary and the Mysuru Dasara celebrations are part of her tableau. Started in the 15th century, the Mysuru Dasara festival is one of Karnataka’s major events.
“The procession of the goddess as it is done at the Mysuru Palace is one of the pieces in my doll exhibition. One of the important pieces is the elephant procession with goddess Chamundeshwari,” says Ravi.
(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Gaurab Dasgupta.)
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