Kaushik is a very busy man. He is attending to at least six customers who are peering over his modest collection of clay dolls that he has brought all the way from Bengal. There is no power in North Mada Street in Mylapore in Chennai, but that does not deter the truckloads of people from buying these colourful dolls or Navaratri Golu bommais as they are referred to in Tamil. The entire street has turned into a mini exhibition as each vendor is displaying his ware.
These are stories from Indian mythology, from epics, and from the lives of Gods and Goddesses. The deities are getting married or are in a war scene. Kaushik speaks to me in Hindi and then he switches over to colloquial Tamil and barks orders in Bengali to his boys to pack the dolls in a carton. I ask him why he is in Chennai at the time of Durga Puja and he says that this Navaratri is the time to be in the South with all the sales and exhibitions going on. He is a craftsman himself but prefers to be called a businessman. He has rented a part of an existing shop and uses their credit card machinery. His Tamil is rather fluent as he rattles out places in Chennai and Bangalore where he has supplied his crafts.
I move on with four cartons of dolls, made of clay. It is a Krishna theme this year and I have just picked up some miniatures. My fascination with Golu started when I was a child when I looked at the dolls as a way of storytelling through art. They transported me into a land of legends and myths, where Rama would go boating with Guhan or Krishna would kill Kamsa. I grew up creating parks and zoos and village scenes, while the elders would arrange the dolls. Today, as I celebrate the festival, it is my way of connecting back to my childhood, when my fascination with Indian mythology started.
The clay dolls from Panrupti and Pondicherry were always held in high esteem as one could order stories and legends of his or her choice. A craftsman from Panrupti had 45 dolls narrating stories from Ramayana for sale. He said they started working on them as early as March. Another vendor told me that he would camp in Panrupti for at least a month to decide what stories he wanted to create.
Navaratri is a festival that is celebrated across the country under different names. Dussehra, Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Vijayadashami, or Golu, the essence of the festival is the same – the victory of good over evil. In the north, there is Ram Leela where the effigies of Ravana are burnt while in the South, Chamundeshwari or Durga slays the demon, Mahishasura. The entire subcontinent however is in a festive spirit with processions, dandiya dances, music and art exhibitions.
Today is the first day of Navaratri, the divine court of the Goddess Durga visits my house as I keep the “golu”. The wooden and clay figurines of Gods and Goddesses jostle for space with cobblers and snake charmers. I try to seek legends that are relatively rare. There is, for instance, the story of Brahma emerging from the navel of Vishnu or Andal singing the Thirupaavai in praise of Krishna. At the death bed of Bhishma , the five Pandavas pay respect to the grandsire with Krishna where the Vishnusahasranama is narrated. There are also light-hearted legends, with the saint Narada instigating a fight between Rukmini and Satyabhama, the consorts of Krishna to a more serious story of Shiva learning the meaning of “ Om “ from his son Muruga. On another stand, the marriage of Sundresar (Shiva) and Meenakshi (Parvati) is celebrated with great fanfare with all the Gods and Goddesses in attendance.
The Indianness of the festival moves beyond deities and demons as artists celebrate various facets of Indian culture through art. So, we have scenes from villages, musicians performing, soldiers fighting a battle and couples from various communities. Every golu will have at least two regulars – Kuberan the god of wealth being offered fruits and grains and the quintessential Thanjavur dolls nodding their heads at you. The great Indian wedding finds its place here and as I move on with more curios and gifts, I hear a lady exclaiming to a shopkeeper, “ This cricket set is too expensive .” And pat comes the reply, “ Amma, this is a match between India and Pakistan “. The rains start tumbling in, but business is as usual. The festive season has begun.
PS – This is a story that I had written for Yahoo Travel (which has been shut down) exactly ten years ago. I remember going with my mother for Golu shopping that year as it was a regular ritual for us. And when I stumbled upon this article in my Dropbox today by chance, I felt so nostalgic and wanted to share it here. It’s the first day of Navaratri today and my Golu is almost ready. It’s not a Krishna theme as I had mentioned in the story but there are many stories in there. I am keeping it after two years and its the first time after my mother passed away. And in a way, it’s like a little tribute to her – for all those years of inspiring me with stories, buying dolls for me and for instilling the passion for heritage and culture, arts and crafts, and spiritual traditions.