Navarathiri; a womens’ journey

Young Rukmini gets ready to go to the temple with her mother. Her hair is braided into two tight plaits. Her face is scrubbed and shines with expectation and pride at wearing her newest skirt - a bright blue with a red border. She and her mother are about to walk to the temple near the village for the evening celebrations of Navarathiri.

All the women from nearby will be there with their daughters. For weeks now each family has been busy with their preparations busily polishing a brass plate until it shines like a mirror. Making various colour powders from vegetable leaves and such. Black from dried curry leaves, red from powdered brick. Little white beads from cooked rice paste. With a light sticky gruel they have made kolams on the tray and stuck these rice beads to form the lines and borders. The spaced in between are filled with the coloured powders so painstakingly prepared. And this evening all the women congregate at the temple and offer these “painted prayers” to the Goddess there.

There they stand wearing their best clothes. Their dark shining tresses tightly tied back, Red kum-kum shining on their foreheads. Their daughters wear the little jewellery they possess. And, as the evening light fades fast to give way to the tropical night of gently swaying coconut trees and the hushing rustle of peepul leaves, oil lamps are lit and mothers and daughters now hold out the trays with both arms outstretched. Together they all rotate them in front of the shrine and pray for the future of their families and their children.

The scene is visual. But the smell of freshly broken coconuts, camphor and incense fills the air as do the fragrances from the jasmine and tulsi and kadambam garlands that adorn the shrine. Every woman has a small bunch of flowers tucked in her hair. The sounds of brass bells from the temple doors mingle with the soft chimes of silver bells on the little girls’ ankles.

After the pooja the girls are excitedly talking about the kolam competition to come the next day. Who will win this year? Will it again be the Mala and her mother from the next village? Everyone from nearby villages comes to see the kolams in the temple courtyard. The simple, white rice flour with the occasional dab of red from crushed brick pieces belie the complex patterns. Yellow flowers from pumpkin creepers are occasionally used to add a flash of colour.

Navarathiri is a women’s festival. It also reflects and perhaps helps develop an aesthetic sense that is essentially feminine. No crackers or boisterous processions here. Neither big feasts nor ostentation are part of this celebration. Each family decorates their home in simple fashion. An arrangement of dolls and ornaments forms a prayer area. Each evening women and their daughters visit their friends and neighbours and sit together in a ritual bonding that helps them remember who they are. They are the keepers of the hearth. They share a little sundal and a simple sweet. Sing songs for each other and pray for peace and tranquillity. Even the goddess of Navarathiri, Durga in the form of Mahishasuramardini, is the one who vanquishes the demon Mahisha who represents violence and evil.

There is a school of thought that suggests that these are the demons we face within ourselves. The worship is our endeavour to come face to face with the turmoil and conflict within each of us. For this we seek the grace of the goddess Durga. And in Her name the women gather to unconsciously reflect on their most basic social obligation. They keep the peace, raise the children and promote gentleness and maintain cultural memories.

In recent times Navarathiri has changed and transformed itself as it adapted to city life and urban development. Dolls were made and sold in markets. These were collected - some painted clay and others in tiny plastic forms.

The decorations became more elaborate as collections of dolls grew. Small themes would be created; a hill with a temple on it or a bus stop nearby. A few dolls become the pilgrims. The fact that the pilgrims are disproportionately larger than the bus stop is no matter. A mirror edged with sand forms a small pond. Sprouted mustard seeds and coriander seedlings form a grove and a forest behind the hill.

Another practice involves dressing up the children with costumes. These costumes used to be made with odd pieces of cloth, a dab or two of talc, and a prop or two taken from the odd cupboard. A little girl becomes Krishna with a peacock feather stuck in her hair. Another in a turban becomes Tyagaraja the composer. Together the kids go from home to home in the neighbourhood.

In each home they are welcomed with smiles and affection. Great admiration is shown for their costumes. They are given sundal to eat. So many varieties of sundal! Some sundals have fresh coconut grated over them, others have a lime dressing and still others are made with dark beans and chopped unripe mango that imparts a crisp texture and a tart aftertaste. Plenty of mustard seeds, a few dried chilli peppers and lots of asfoetida are the secret to the success of any sundal.

Navarathiri is also a time for giving. In each home they prepare a little bag of gifts to be given to the friends who come. Typical gifts include a comb, a little vanity mirror, a small plastic kum-kum box, along with the usual betel leaves and nuts and of course the omnipresent haldi - turmeric- that has come to represent all that is feminine in the culture. Each family gives gifts that reflect their means and budget. The importance of giving gifts is the significance in the theme here.
In recent times Navarathiri Kolu has become even more elaborate and thematic. Affluenza, urban life and a manufacturing economy have left their indelible mark. The Kolu has become a festival in and of itself.

Big themes from the Ramayana and other Hindu stories are portrayed. The dolls and the theme-park efforts often remind one of elaborate Legolands or other disneyesque properties. Some are tasteful. Others are garish and some even glitter gaudily even in the dark. Secular themes of independence days and National political figures form the basis of some Kolus. Environmental themes predominate now with water conservation a particularly popular theme. This is only natural in a city that whose population has grown well beyond its ability to supply water to its neighbourhoods.

Perhaps this year someone will have a 9/11 Kolu replete with burning towers, Bush and Bin Laden. Some more daring themes include an anti-war presentation with newspaper headlines and photographs pasted on the wall. Quixotically, birth control and Aids awareness, infanticide and other pressing social issues are nowhere to be found.

Despite the vivid imagination, the artistry and skill reflected in these theme extravaganzas - despite all the good taste and the new ideas - these exhibits are missing some element. Perhaps it is the essential simplicity of our lives that is gone. Where are the children and their mothers who used to make and display these dolls together? Is it a life and an innocence we have lost forever?

But Navarathiri is also coming again and being reborn. An artist friend, Deppika, is organising a “traditional” Kolu replete with hand made dolls and clay figures hearkening to yesteryear. A “tableau” she calls it. The theme is Andal Charithram - the essential Tamil story of the woman who is regarded as the greatest of the Alwar poets. Deppika and her mother Uma have together worked on this Kolu. I wonder if the sundal will have grated coconut and chopped mango in it! Will it be home made or will it be catered from “Suriya’s Sweets”?