Offline bommais, online bonhomie- The New Indian Express

By Express News Service

CHENNAI: Every Navaratri, Kalpana Kalyanaraman’s house in Mandaveli transforms into an enchanting doll museum of sorts for nine days. The corners of her home are decked up with bommais depicting themes from mythological tales. And to watch this magnificent display, women dressed in their bright silks, and young girls in pattu pavadai visit her, some even come unannounced.

A cheerful welcome later, Kalpana gives them a tour of her bommai golu, watching which, some break into impromptu bhajans and keertans, adding to the spirit of this nine-day festival. Sundal and a delightful thamboolam are a must as a token of gratitude to the guests. Cut to 2020, with the coronavirus casting a shadow of threat, the grandeur of golu has been toned down several notches in Kalpana’s home. But she’s not alone in missing the usual joie de vivre of this festival.

Many Tamil-speaking households have decided to either mute the celebrations to a low-key affair or called it off this year. But for some other keepers of tradition, it’s golu as usual — with all the hygiene protocols in place. Not willing to give up the spirit of her family tradition, on Friday, Kalpana fixed the nuts and bolts of her seven-step golu. In the 25-yearhistory of Navaratri celebrations at her home, this is the first time when invitations will be restricted to family and friends.

“I usually have a guest list of about 25-30 walking in every day but now it will be one or two. I buy a minimum of three sets of dolls, but this year, I purchased only two. Even my elaborate themes have taken a backseat. Guests enjoy the variety in sweet and savoury that I offer, but this year it’s a traditional menu with only savoury. My return gifts are also much looked forward to, but this year it’s a simple thamboolam with a mask. It’s a simple golu, but I have kept my storytelling sessions as engaging as possible,” elaborates Kalpana.

Every year, Priyanka Bhatt conducts storytelling sessions for kids during Navaratri

Golu must go on
Far from Mandaveli, in Anna Nagar, the sound of the celebratory cheer is muffled under masks at Priya Prabhu’s home. For her, Navaratri is all about showcasing creative talents and indulging in family time. The theme of her five-step golu is Goddess Durga. And her family hopes that Goddess Durga slays the Coronasura this year. Priya has taken all precautions to ensure that her guests have a safe golu-viewing experience. “Our gated community has a few positive cases, so, I have invited only people from our block. Masks are mandatory and a sanitiser will be kept at our entrance.

We usually have a grand dandiya and garba night with cultural performances in our apartment, which again will be on a smaller scale this year. I have promised to do virtual golu-vieweing sessions on Google Hangouts for friends and family,” she shares. Clearly, safety has taken precedence over tradition, even if it means dropping a few names from the guest list. Ask 50-something-old Shanthi Ramachandran, who has never missed a chance to keep a golu every year while growing up. “We have elderly parents living with us so I don’t want to invite any trouble by stepping out or letting in a big group of people. Some family members and neighbours in my apartment will be coming.

I have couriered the thamboolam with a sari and accessories as per each person’s liking to those who will not be able to make it. I will also be sending a video of our golu to our dear ones on WhatsApp,” reveals Shanthi, a retired banker living in KK Nagar. But Shanthi and her friends have found other fun ways to stay cheerful, like dressing up according to the colour code for nine days and posting a photograph on their WhatsApp groups. While golu is all about inviting guests home, it is also about visiting the houses of near and dear ones.

This year, Sundari Ram is more than happy staying indoors and connecting over video-calls. “I live in Chintadripet and I have to go to the other end of the city where all my friends live, it is exhausting. If I forget to invite someone, I don’t get invited by the same person. Sometimes, there’s peer pressure to attend everyone’s golu even if I don’t want to. You might have had plans of having a small golu, but you tend to overdo just because you want to win the yearly golu competition and post it on Facebook.

This year, I feel peaceful. I’m going to do everything virtually with the help of my daughter. There’s a traditional golu with a small park set up at our home. Having said this, I will miss the grand golu and singing bhajans at temples,” she says. For Swathi Govindarajan too, the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise as she could use the time to plan her golu at leisure. “Earlier, since I had to go to office, it used to be tough juggling household chores and office work. Planning was easier and flexible this time with the work from home rule. I have invited a few friends depending on our mutual convenience,” shares Swathi.

Priya Prabhu’s five-step Durga-themed golu

Sharing knowledge
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that large gatherings are passé. Virtual meeting is the trend, and golu celebrations seemed to have logged into this cloud facility too. Kalpana has been recording stories related to the themes and sharing them with friends and family. Draped in a peacock blue nineyard sari teamed with Kemp jewellery, and a string of jasmine flowers adorning her hair, Kalpana positions herself comfortably in front of a tripod as she narrates the Ramayana, her theme for this year, to upload on YouTube.

“I have divided my guest list into in-person, walk-ins and virtual sessions based on their convenience. I will be doing two slots of virtual storytelling sessions for adults and kids every day. That aside, a few videos will be uploaded on my Facebook page, every day. I’ve planned to invite only two families home every day — one in the morning and evening.

Except for reducing the number of guests who usually walk-in, there’s no compromising on any other ritual such as the daily offering for God. I will courier the thamboolam to those who can’t come. Irrespective of the medium, the purpose is achieved, so, I’m content,” she shares. Other socialmedia- friendly youngsters like Krithika Ramesh are making the most of this season. In the past few months, Krithika has been handson with live chanting and sloka sessions. “I should’ve been in Chennai at my mother’s place for golu but I’m stuck in Bengaluru.

My goal has always been to preserve and pass on our cultural values to likeminded people. It’s amusing to find youngsters showing keen interest in spiritual activities during Navaratri. To help them out, I’ve been posting slokas to be read during the nine days, for beginners, naivedyam planners, and attending to their queries regarding Navaratri on my Instagram page Mylaporeiyeraathuponnu,” details a 30-something Krithika. Krithika’s posts have been encouraging women across age groups to come together and celebrate Navaratri with a firmer purpose.

“We’ve read the Lalitha Sahasranamam, and I ’m also conducting Thirupavai classes online. We’ve been able to reach a larger target audience easily. Elderly women have been actively attending these sessions after learning the basics with the help of their children. I also believe that now is the time to get your children involved in the festivities. People now don’t consider it uncool to be spiritually involved. Rather, they take pride in their traditions,” suggests Krithika.

Navaratri has become a festival to impart
traditional values to kids

Sentiments across the sea
Miles away, Priyanka Bhatt and Madhumita Ram, in Portland and Dubai respectively, are doing just what Krithika recommends. They have set up this year’s golu with the sole intention of familiarising their children with religious values. Despite being a Gujarati married into an Iyer family, Priyanka’s passion for golu has drawn admiration from friends in her neighbourhood in the US.

Her golu has always been known for the elaborate lunch spread she prepares with a mix of Gujarati and Tamil delicacies. Her guests also look forward to her storytelling sessions. “My husband and kids set up a five-step golu. I have got some books with me and I will be reading mythological tales to children. This is the time when the Indian community living here comes alive as we dress up and go golu-hopping. We will not be inviting many people this year.

We will have to be extra cautious with the pandemic.It’s the fall season here, and infections tend to spread rapidly. Most of the storytelling will be recorded and made virtually available for people,” reports Priyanka. With international travel being restricted, Madhu may not be able to visit her mother for golu, but she has set up a smaller version at her house to carry forward the legacy.

Apart from that, she will be delivering home-cooked sweets and savouries to her friends. “I have always helped out amma with setting up golu, as a kid. The activity gives me immense joy. People from different communities living here celebrate Navaratri in their own ways. This year, a few neighbours will come to see the golu and the rest will be virtually available for others. I will be giving plants as return gifts,” opens up Madhu.

Changing times
Over the years, golu, which was once seen as a religious affair, has transcended age and time to become an opportunity to socialise and network. It’s also wielded by many as a storytelling weapon to take important messages to people with audio and visual elements, and innovative concepts. This is what Karpagam Vinoth is doing with her debut golu this year. She promises to offer an educative experience t o her guests. “My golu will feature a mix of objects that intend to raise awareness about the regular traditional bommais purchased from artisans.

I will be highlighting the benefits of native milk, organically dyed cotton, and millet varieties in my golu. Every step in the golu will narrate a story that will be recorded and uploaded on YouTube. I will be giving books as return gifts to guests. We even ordered organic turmeric from Sittilingi, Dharmapuri. I have invited my maid, milkman, our security guard, and the lesser-privileged in our area and will be offering them food,” says an excited Karpagam.

Inclusive themes, handmade return gifts from local artisans, bold choice of dolls — there’s a conscious effort being made to experiment with mindful ideas. Thirupurasundari Sevvel’s diverse doll collection on the second floor of her home in Shenoy Nagar speaks of its progressive and secular outlook. Although it will be a minimalistic golu this year, she has curated it mindfully with dolls purchased from struggling artisans around the country. “I have picked my regular dolls from Bommai Chattiram, Triplicane, Mylapore, and Chintadripet.

That apart, there will be Covida dolls made by Porgai’s artisans from Dharmapuri, corn husk dolls by a Delhi-based craftsperson and more,” says Thirupurasundari. Inclusivity extends to the return gifts, which includes cloth bags from Pallagutapalle in Andhra Pradesh, dandiya sticks made by survivors of sex trafficking at Prajwala Foundation and lamps from Sri Arunodayam. She has also been penning letters and sending postcards, purchased from independent artists to people. “It’s an opportunity to express our gratitude and love to people who’ve not been able to make it for the golu.

I may be doing a few virtual storytelling sessions for guests,” she adds. In the end, it’s the intention of the golu that matters to people like Rukmani Krishnan, who steer away from social media and resonate with old-school ways of keeping golu. A native of Karaikudi, she has set up her traditional golu with a wide display of dolls for her personal satisfaction. She has invited her maid, tailor, istriwalla, milkman, everyday helpers, and lesserprivileged children to see the golu.

“You’ve been in touch with them through the lockdown, so might as well invite them. When will they get to experience these things? I will be giving them a thamboolam and offering them some food. Golu is a personal affair to me and it will continue to be so,” she explains . Even amida pandemic, celebrations in these homes bring hope and cheer. Their relentless spirit to find ways to carry on the tradition suggests that in adversities lie opportunities to rediscover.

Mindful set up
Although it will be a minimalistic golu this year, Thirupurasundari Sevvel has curated it mindfully with
dolls purchased from struggling artisans around the country.

Digital discourse
Kalpana has been recording stories related to the themes and sharing them with friends and
family. She is recording stories from Ramayana and uploading them on YouTube.

From setting up simpler golus and trimming the guest list to conducting virtual tours and couriering thamboolams — the keepers of this annual tradition have found alternative ways to celebrate Navaratri, summoning the Gods and Goddesses to slay the ‘Coronasura’ this year

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