Thursday, 2 October 2008
NAVARATHRI - A SEASON FOR DOLLS
It is called Navarathri, nine nights of celebrating the Goddesses Lakshmi, Parvathi and Saraswathi, here in Tamilnadu. Elsewhere it is Dussehra, celebrating Ramlila, or Durga Pooja in Bengal – all festivals blazing with colour and revelry, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. Simplistic Hindu faith.
In Madras (as in other places in Tamilnadu) it is celebrated with a kolu at homes, a kind of arrangement of colourful dolls, or iconic representations of gods and goddesses on numerous steps, along with other curios and artifacts. It is the height of socializing for womenfolk, who visit one another and exchange thamboolam (the auspicious gifts of betel leaves and nuts, coconut and fruits with turmeric, sandal paste and kumkum- vermilion).
No sooner than the wind changes, and the nights start turning cooler, shops selling the dolls sprout up overnight in busy shopping areas. The area around Sri Kapali Temple is the ultimate example. The pavements are crowded with different vendors displaying their wares – all arranged in step fashion, so that they themselves look like kolu.
My mother and I went to look for ourselves. My mother whose kolus were real works of art, enjoyed looking at the dolls. Here she is, at one of the shops still setting out its wares, enjoying one of the butter-eating Krishna.
There are representations of all the major Gods and Goddesses, painted with brilliant colours, attracting the passersby to stop and look again, even if they don’t buy. The sellers are mainly city dwellers who get their wares from anywhere – Cuddalore, Bunrooti, Ponidcherry, said one of them. Some of them were reluctant to talk, since business was picking up right then. But one of them told me that they are all mostly fruit sellers, who change to doll selling for the season. Higher prices did not deter many – the vendors expected their customers to bargain and bargain they did.
The pavement shops block sizable chunks outside the regular major shops. I asked one of the jewellers, whose space outside was hosting one of these, if they asked him before setting up shop. He said, “They did the first time, and since then they come every year and occupy the space without asking. But they won’t let anyone set up shop here – it is as if they have an unsigned lease! The whole family takes turns to keep watch.” He did not seem to mind very much, though.
At one of the wedding halls nearby, there was an exhibition of the products of women’s self-help groups, which also had dolls and other interesting objects (unconnected with Navarathri) for sale. The idols of Ganesha(above), carved in wood and painted, are more than three foot high. And the little dolls (left) wearing colourful costumes, not more than six inches high.
I have also heard of a similar festival in Japan called Hinamatsuri, where dolls are arranged on tiers. Makes one wonder if there was a common starting point for both.
There is nothing like our festivals – a perfect balance of religious and social features - with their bright colours to make our spirits soar.