IT’S NAVRATRI and the Dandiya fever is on the city again. As many Mumbaiites brush up their dance skills and decide their costumes, the Tamil Brahmin community is celebrating the nine days of the Goddess in its own way.
Kolu — figurines representing deities, Nature, and people of various communities, all arranged on brightly-lit, decorated steps in their house — is a tradition that many families in Mumbai continue to observe. The figurines on the steps can be anything a family considers significant, breaking the boundaries between religious and cultural symbols.
“Two main dolls called Marpachi, which depict the deity Venkateshwara and his wife Lakshmi, are constant in every family’s Kolu.Traditionally, the dolls are made of sandalwood. Apart from this, a particular Kolu can have a theme like Dashavatar or Ashta Lakshmi,” says S K Subramaniam, a resident of Matunga. “The arrangement is not restricted to religious figures, we also add figurines from nature, professions or even ceremonies such as weddings to our Kolu,” Subramaniam adds.
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Prashant Shankarnarayan, a relative of Subramaniam’s, says that in Mumbai, unlike Ganeshotsav or Durga Puja, Koluis still a homely tradition, which is not yet commercialised.
“Unlike in south India, there are not many sarvajanik Kolus in Mumbai. It is still quite a private celebration. The festival has its own rituals for all the nine days — such as the cereal-based foods, the tradition of singing devotional songs and the Yagnya on the 9th day for Durga, and the mark of the end of the festival, when the Marpachi dolls are finally laid down,” says Shankarnarayan.
Subramaniam, whose family has lived in Matunga for around 100 years, says Kolu has been celebrated in his family for as long as he can remember. “Earlier, women were mostly home-makers and didn’t go out much. So, Kolu was a festival that used to bring the community together, as people, especially women, made rounds of each others’ houses for Manjal Kumkum (haldi kumkun),” says his wife Geeta. “It was also an opportunity for the elders to pitch marriage proposals,” laughs Subramanium.
The Tamil Brahmin community is quite a fluid one, imbibing traits from other states such as Kerala and Maharashtra. “During Shivaji’s reign, the Brahmins of Tamilian and Maharashtrian communities intermingled quite a bit. The haldi kumkum ceremony, the nine-yard saree, the use of coconut in food, all of these practices are shared,” says Shankarnarayan. “Palakkad Iyers like us celebrate the festivals of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” says Geeta.
As younger Tamil Brahmins find themselves caught up in jobs and the demands of modern life, fewer families are setting up Kolus at home, says Subramaniam. “Many of our neighbours used to set up Kolu, but now it’s just a few families,” he says.
Despite this, Kolu is a cherished festival across generations.
“It’s something that defines us. It’s our identity,” says Shankar Balakrishnan, another resident of Matunga.
“I remember my brother and I loved the eighth day of the festival, the Saraswati Puja, as the books would be kept for the puja and we didn’t have to study,” says Shankarnaraya.