The homespun charm of Golu during Navaratri in South India is primarily due to the display of colourful dolls or bommai. The delicate things are made of soft earth and glow with glaze, gold pigments, colours, motifs and designs. The Golu dolls are seasonal showpieces made to grace the home only during these auspicious days and are displayed as a festive collection.
In former centuries Navaratri dolls were made by craftsmen from Vandipalayam, near Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu. The Kullalar community of potters made fine dolls using clay from the banks of River Kedilam which had the right amount of sand and clay deposits suited for fashioning these intricate dolls. Colourful clay dolls were initially painted with vegetable dyes. In modern times, plastic colours contribute to their sheen.
The dolls of any Golu are a combination of religious, mythological and secular character. Animals and plants form a part of the Golu too.
While the top tiers of a Golu are meant for figures of gods and goddesses (The Dasavataram dolls, Arupadaiveedu Murugan dolls, the Ashtalakshmi or eight goddesses are hugely popular), saints, singers, poets like Thyagaraja or Muthuswami Dikshitar are also displayed. Secular tableaus include dolls of shopkeepers, merchants like the Chettiar and Chettitichi dolls, a wedding procession, a cricket team playing on a field, pretty vegetable sellers, farmers, flower sellers. The odd nationalist figures like Gandhi or Nehru in a sola topi can be spotted too standing sagely in divine company. Kondapalli wooden Raja-Rani dolls called Marapachi dolls are a must in every Golu collection.
The bottom tiers and the floor around the Golu space are earmarked for clay dolls, wooden ones and rag dolls too. Choppu or a children’s kitchen set and doll houses are also displayed to please the little girls of the families. In modern times, don’t be surprised if you see children putting up their Barbies or Ben10 plastic toys too. Grasslands using mustard seeds are grown to resemble miniature tableau of gardens, jungles, woods with tiny figurines of birds and animals, little ponds or water bodies are also displayed depending on the DIY talent of the family.
With fairy lights sparkling and in the glow of silver lamps, incense and fragrance of joss sticks and floral offerings, the dolls of any Golu add colour to the Navaratri occasion.
The photographer Priya Iyer was born in India, raised in the Persian Gulf and lives in the United States. She can be found at her blog Once Upon A Tea Time.