Navaratri celebrations in Tamil Nadu are homespun affairs celebrated primarily at homes which turned into social affairs with entertaining led by women for the festival of the goddess Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi.
Golu: During the nine days the principal portion of the house, meaning the front hall or living room, was taken over by the Golu, the display of dolls that is a primary feature of the celebration. (‘Golu’ in Tamil, means, ‘to preside over’ or ‘be on display’). Wooden or metal stands made up of five, seven, nine or eleven staggered steps (the number depended on how many dolls you had to display) were set up in the living room, driving the men folk ( who liked to loll in their cane chairs there, reading their The Hindu or drinking their coffee) out into the wilderness.
The Golu as a hen party: For nine days thereafter, it was a hens’ party to beat all hens’ parties. The women of the family, down to the last squirming baby-girl, wore silks, aired out their jewellery and entertained other female visitors to their Golu with sweets, savouries and sundal (boiled and spiced pulses and sprouts). Even tone deaf women sang classical songs as if they were M.S. Subbulakshmi. As for the boys, they participated in the Golu only in so far as their help was solicited in setting up the Golu padi (steps) and placing the dolls on the higher steps.
Themes for Golu in Chennai: Over the last decade, Golus have become increasingly competitive especially in Chennai. Themed out display are in. Themes like ‘Lives of Saivite or Vaishnavite saints’ or ‘Jyotirlingam Kshetras’, ‘Ramayana’ or ‘Bhagavatha’ scenes are huge hits in Chennai. The experience of visiting such Golus is rather like going to the science fair in your child’s school. In fact, one ardent Golu-maker waved her little cane around pointing it at various exhibits in her display, exactly as if she were a diligent student pointing out the finer aspects of her chemistry project at the science fair.
Golu Kolam: It’s not just the Golu – even the kolams on the floor have become more competitive. Complicated rangoli portraits of mythical characters, gods and goddesses and scenes from the epics have now become the norm. Wealthier and better connected home makers get their themes turned into displays by commissioning film-set makers to turn their Golu dreams to reality.
Golu competitions: The Golu hoopla is receiving media and corporate hype in Chennai these days. Golus in every area are judged by visiting teams from the local newspapers or publicity-seeking firms and the winners of the contest are given prizes and pictures of their Golus (along with the proud Golu-makers) are published in the local papers and magazines.
The author Janaki Venkataraman is a Chennai-based journalist and writer.