The nine-day Navarathri in South India, which is 10-day Dussehra in North India — days are shorter in North India due to global warming — is upon us now.
This year’s Navarathri is doubly special because — religious almanacs say this phenomenon occurs only once in 144 years — it helpfully telescopes into Gandhi Jayanthi and brings along with it the promise of a 5-day holiday.
The biggest highlight of Navarathri in these parts is, of course, the kolu. The tradition of kolu goes several centuries back. What happened then was a group of Tamil guys was sitting and chatting, when one of them, surprisingly speaking good English, said, “we will make random dolls and lay them out on specially constructed stands, so that our respective wives and daughters can sit around and sing songs, mostly off-key.”
Why would you want to do it? asked another, who also was well-versed in English.
“Hey! I am trying to get a tradition started,” he replied with clarity. Thus it began. And these days, kolu has become an elaborate and enormous exercise, requiring more planning, more production effort and, of course, unimaginably more steel pins, than it did James Cameron to come up with the set for Avatar.
And this week we teach you how to set up a traditional kolu:
In olden days, most households made do with whatever stuff was available at hand to come up with the steps for the kolu. Stool, tin containers, cardboard boxes, a reasonable mound or pile of dirt on the floor, the youngest kid in the household. Over any of this or all of them, wooden boards were placed and then covered over with — this is at the core of all kolus — dad’s veshti. (That is why Navarathri has become a women’s festival. Without the veshti, the dad just hides himself in the closet).
But these days, there are easy-to-assemble steel platforms. Uninstalling them is also not all that difficult. So where is the catch here? You veteran householders will know the answer: Safe-guarding the screws and bolts. Households will uninstall the kolu, carefully bundle all the contents in boxes and put them all up on the loft. Next year, when the boxes and boards are brought down, everything will be intact, except the screws and bolts. Some of then would have just vanished. How? Where to? Nobody knows. But it happens every year without fail. And we strongly suspect that aliens, belonging to a mysterious planet, are involved. They surreptitiously secure, among others, our kerchiefs, socks (part of a pair), keys, nuts and bolts. It is some kind of Bigg Boss Task for them.
Anyway, once you set up the kolu padi, you have to decide whether you want a simple or thematic kolu.
Here is a handy chart to tell you the difference between the two:
1) Simple kolu: Dolls placed randomly and a Dasavatharam set.
2) Thematic kolu: Dolls placed not randomly and a Dasavatharam set.
As you can see, if it is to be classified as a kolu there has to be a Dasavatharam set. Otherwise it is just a collection of figureheads. Like Parliament, but not totally that pointless.
The beauty of the Dasavatharam set is that the ten dolls that comprise it provide the creative space for people to completely mess up their sequence.
We mean nobody remembers the right order. You don’t have to believe us. Just try this: Walk up to any person and ask him to give the precise order of the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu. You will be surprised by the kind of response you will get. Yes, he will slap you. Just because we told you, in your eagerness, you just went ahead and stopped a motorist at a crowded junction.
The right Dasavatharam order is: Macha, Kurma, Varaha, Fletcher, Krishnaveni, George Bush…okay, we think we are getting it all mixed up here.
But once you get the right order, you are almost ready to go, provided you can spot the difference in the looks between Rama and Balarama. In standard set of dolls, both of them are tall, well-built and carry bows. So the essential trick to differentiate between the two is — you must write this down in a paper and if possible teach your children, too because they will love this — inky, pinky, ponky.
After placing the dolls and idols, you must turn your attention to the one thing without which kolus are incomplete: the park. They are the side-section of the kolu, in pristine plastic and acrylic colours, symbolically highlighting the need to retain greenery and preserve nature.
For decorating the kolu, serial lights are always popular and add extra colour to the proceedings by triggering small fire in the junction box. Shop around for light strings that have been pre-snarled at the factory for your convenience.
Your kolu is now fully worked out. But remember the success of any kolu is pivoted on aesthetics, tradition, style, sincerity, devotion, and, above all, the one quality without which the whole of Navarathri, loses all its significance — the taste of sundal you serve for the day.