CHENNAI: Navaratri conjures up images of a festive break from school, women in resplendent silk saris and glittering jewellery, golu bommais and varieties of sundal served across nine days of worship. Families take this occasion as an opportunity to visit each other’s homes, indulge in friendly banter and exchange vethalai pakku and vermilion. Vaishali Vijaykumar goes golu-hopping in the city
Inclusivity and unconventional avatars
A girl child sits and plays with her tea set. Next to her is a beautiful house that she builds after completing her education. A housewarming ceremony is happening in the presence of her parents and friends. For most of us who are used to seeing a wedding procession or a baby shower ceremony, this might come across as an unusual depiction at a golu.
The hall on the second floor of their home, called Tamil Manam in Shenoy Nagar, is dedicated to golu, where these age-old idols made out of different materials by artisans from all parts of Tamil Nadu and India, are on display. The diverse doll collection at the home of IH Sevvel and Vaijayanthi Mala speaks of their progressive and secular outlook.
“We started keeping golu 28 years back out of interest. My aunt loved keeping a golu and inviting guests home. We stopped after her death and restarted three years back. This is a tribute to her passion. Unlike traditional families, golu wasn’t a part of our legacy. People used to question our themes and choice of dolls. As a family, our only goal is to encourage people to know these treasured stories and take away a social message. This year’s decoration has been executed by my sister Sivagami,” says Thirupurasundari Sevvel, IH Sevvel’s daughter.
An architect by profession, it was her decision to give an equal representation of male and female deities. Saptha kannigal, or war goddesses, stand mighty on the third step of the seven-stepped golu. The idols of Lord Krishna and Goddess Andal are placed next to each other. Water gently trickles down the palms of Goddess Kaveri and is collected in a bowl, highlighting the importance of conservation.
“We also have a touch-and-feel experience for visually impaired visitors. Having a lift and ramp set up inside our home eases the accessibility for the physically challenged. This makes it an inclusive golu. Our electrician anna is a Muslim. Sometimes he knows best if anything is missing in a doll. We have guests from all religions,” said Thirupurasundari, who gives space for cultural performances by friends. Inclusivity extends to the return gifts, which includes cloth bags from Pallagutapalle in Andhra Pradesh, dandiya sticks made by survivors from Prajwala Foundation and paper bags from Sri Arunodayam. The golu is open to the public for viewing. She extends the display for a week so that people don’t miss the annual opportunity.
Where dolls come alive
It’s easy to spot D Harigopal’s and Usha Harigopal’s house on the second street of Spartan Nagar in Mogappair. The tall building is brightly lit during Navaratri. Guests keep walking in and out with tambulam bags. A clay figurine of a woman with folded hands welcomes us into the house. The ground floor has been done up to resemble a town with a village panchayat, bullock cart, traditional games, ladies chattering outside houses, banyan trees, and government schools.
The first floor of the two-storied building has a seven-step golu with traditional idols highlighting stories from the Indian epics and religion. A shrine with deities neatly placed inside resembles a typical South Indian temple. Made by their traditional doll maker, it is the highlight of the collection.
The family has been keeping golu since 1989, not as a part of tradition but out of sheer passion. After participating in several theme competitions for golu, this year’s display has been only for family members and friends. Their house is fondly called the doll house by neighbours because of their annual golu display.
“I grew up in Triplicane agraharam. I’ve seen what a golu looks like. But I wanted the dolls to be symmetrical, colour-coordinated and proportionate in size. With my engineering background, I decided to bring in some audio-visual effects to the dolls. We sat together as a 15-member team that included the electrician, doll maker, carpenter and more. We designed the dolls to move and gave a voice-over, dubbed for them and made it a lively experience. It’s a much-anticipated event every year,” says D Harigopal.
Golu is a family affair when it comes to sharing the work. Food miniature artist Shilpa Mitha, Hari’s daughter, has designed a few miniature figurines on the display. Her brother Jatin Krishna had set up and programmed a darkroom experience on the theme Jurassic Park.
A bunch of guests were led into the darkroom to see Jurassic Park depicted before their eyes through golu within five minutes. The voice-over explaining the different types of dinosaurs was informative. It was a shorter version of the film.
“We want many people to come and celebrate this yearly occasion. All it requires is interest and dedication. What you see is a reflection of our efforts. My wife has treasured age-old dolls from her mother and she’s also a key person who decides what goes where. She and her sister have also made a few dolls, stitched dresses for them and painted the old ones. People should have a takeaway message and that’s the most important,” shares Hari.
A century-old legacy
We’re inside a compound that houses a 100-year-old bungalow in the heart of Nungambakkam. Next to it stands a 40-year-old house. The facade of the building is enveloped by the long branches of the auspicious Nagalinga or cannonball tree. We’re welcomed by Usha Balakrishnan’s warm smile. She directs us into the hall where her husband, TK Balakrishnan, enthusiastically takes us through their golu.
The duo is well-known in the social circle for their simplicity and love for preserving the heritage — reflected in their display of century-old Mysore wooden dolls. This year’s theme is Ramayana. “The dolls can be dismantled and assembled. Next year, you might see Arjuna’s face instead of Rama’s.
We wanted to capture the nuances of the great Indian epic. Ramayana is close to my heart. I’ve read my 50-year-old book so many times that it’s in tatters now,” says Balakrishnan, who believes that it’s a misconception to call golu a women-only affair. He asserts that more men have started to actively participate in the activities.
Their golu hall is decked up with key chapters of Ramayana on all sides — from Rama going into exile and Sita’s abduction to the war where Ravana is killed. The dresses for the dolls are stitched by Usha, who owns a printing unit and specialises in block-printing techniques. She handles the decorations while Balakrishnan attends to the guests.
The highlight of their golu is the lights that match the display. "TS Tirumurthy, after whom this street in Nungambakkam is named, happens to be my grandfather. I’ve grown up around respected personalities. All these ancestral idols and dolls were inherited from my grandmother. I was brought up with religious and spiritual values. We’re carrying forward this tradition. The heritage bungalow next to our house is my ancestral building. We want to preserve it," shares Balakrishnan, as he shows us the majestic building.
The garden is dotted with age-old sculptures of Goddess Saraswathi and Lord Krishna. He has a tulsi manch in the backyard. It has bronze inscriptions of gods on it. Next to it is a Lingaraj carved out of stone. One can find a similar one at the Mysore maharani’s palace. “I attend to the guests when my wife is away golu-hopping. I also visit a few houses. This season is special to us. All are welcome to our golu,” he says.