Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Navarathri 2011

Every year, in the late September - early October time frame, Navarathri arrives as if to herald the upcoming Northeast monsoon, which to those living in parched Tamil Nadu is always a boon. To me, growing up in Chennai, Navarathri was the festival. Not Diwali. Not Pongal. Navarathri. When else do you get to wear pretty clothes for nine nights straight and strut about town? At night. When else did you get to see the entire neighborhood's creativity on display? When else were tone deaf maamis allowed to sing in public. OK may be, the last one is not quite as exciting for those who were stuck on the hearing end of the singing mamis!

Depending on which part of India you come from, the reason for celebration is different. The southern version is that of the Goddess waging a war for nine straight nights against a bull-faced tyrant and emerging victorious on the tenth day. To me, it was when everyone at home pitched in to decorate the seven steps (or was it eleven) that we set up at the beginning of the festival to display our "dolls" (as they are inappropriately called). Starting a few days earlier, the whole house would be abuzz with activities. My grandmother (with very helpful little elves) would start making colored paper garlands to be hung from ceilings and to be draped on the sides of the steps. My mother would supervise the annual Grand Bringing Down of the Steps from Storage and the Setting up of It! My Dad would design more paper decorations that we would help cut and shape and later, tack on to the steps.

When done, the steps soared all the way to the ceiling.
To reach the middle of the upper step of the golu, one would have to climb on to a stool. This is where the all important kalasam went which was carefully hidden from view by the larger pieces.  This was Mom's territory.  The larger pieces were always on the upper steps and dealt with themes from the Hindu mythology. Going down the steps, the tone changed to the more informal and that's where my Mom's plastic bead sculptures went, along with other interesting things like a set of dolls depicting a marriage scene. There were statues of freedom fighters that I am sure came from the pre-independence or even the immediately-after-independence era, and a brighter looking pair of Mother India with flags and all.

Each year we would ask to set up a "zoo" and a "park". Each year Mom would resist, "who is going to clean up all the sand ?" Each year this argument would be countered with an enthusiastic, "WE WILL!!" from the kids that normally feigned deafness when she asked for some help with the household chores. And yet, each year, the moong beans were soaked and moong sprouts enthusiastically planted in soil to build the "turf" of the park. Each year little plastic animals would be placed in the "zoo", with the zebra disproportionately towering over the giraffe and protected from the teeny tiger next door by a precariously tilting stick fence and an impossibly blue "rivulet".  Each year, the master planners of the golu would redesign the zoo and the park amidst heated arguments of how it is impossible, really impossible, for this or that animal to be placed in close proximity to the other. Sometimes these arguments were taken to the "elders" to settle and sometimes they were settled mutually by way of a small fisticuff.

Each night we would run enthusiastically to the temple to see the way the Devi was decorated. Each day it would correspond to one of the avatars of the Devi. On the ninth day, she would be decorated all in white symbolizing the Goddess of learning. This day was bitter sweet for us kids, because it signaled that the party was nearly over, but it was also the only adult sanctioned no-studying day in the entire 365 days of the year (366 if it were a leap year)!! The only book related thing you had to do on that day was to bring out one textbook from each subject and set it up in front of the steps, where it was covered ceremoniously in silk cloth and duly worshipped. And you didn't have to study for a whole day, guilt free. On the 10th day -- the victorious 10th (Vijayadasami), you had to do a little second pooja, open up the books and read a single paragraph from each of the textbook. It made for the strangest readings of all. Within one hour there would be paragraphs read from Nicholas Nickleby to Graph Theory, stopping on the way at Tamil novels. Then everyone that was learning any fine arts in the house had to practice for a bit, while everybody else listened/watched. This included hoarse throated singing, screechy violins and a quick Bharatanatyam adavu. Anyone who wasn't learning any fine arts was enrolled in a class on that day.

It was also that night when the ustava murthys (the bronze temple statues that were meant for processions) were polished from 3:00pm by industrious neighborhood kids, decorated and taken out on a procession late at night. Several men, including Dad, were in the procession party, singing Vedic hymns all the way, carrying the three palanquins with the utsavars and walking barefooted through the entire neighborhood, stopping at streets to let people meet and greet the Gods as they went around town in a grand procession, with music, vedic chants and chattering kids and sparkling moms bringing up the rear. This is also usually when the Monsoon decides to rain on the parade. Literally. On one such procession several years ago, we were rained on pretty hard, to the point where the adults decided that the kids would have to be housed in other people's homes to wait out the rain, while the adults would continue with their procession all the way back to the temple. My sister and I were loth to leave the procession, but were told firmly to seek shelter in the nearby house. Shivering in our skins, we were offered boy's clothes by the "aunty" who had only sons. I remember being so disappointed at not completing the procession.

Last year, 16 years after I moved out of India, I set up my first golu. I had managed to steal a lot of my Mom's collection, but my golu doesn't hold a candle to the golu of my childhood days. Gone are the days, when you rush out the front door, barefooted, yelling over your shoulder to whoever is listening, "I am going to the temple" and spent the better part of an afternoon brushing and burnishing bronze statues. Today, before heading off to work, I must retrieve my golu padi from the garage. I may even have some time to dust it off. When I get back home, I can set it all up and decorate it. Wish I had all my grandmother's color paper garlands though! May be I will make some papier mache sculptures, one each year, to add to my display.

Happy Navarathri everyone!

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Kinmin said...

Happy Navratri to you too! Your post brought tears to my eyes - though I am from North India and have celebrated Navratri very differently, but the wave of nostalgia hits every time I am away from family during the festival season!

Agnija Bharathi said...

Hugs, Kinmin.

Koduvayur R.Parthasarathy said...

A very nice reverie. Brings back to my mind my childhood, ( i was possibly 10 years old then) when we could not afford the really nice dolls. I used mud and created my own dolls with natural paints, the flowers, seeds etc of neighborhood trees. I did not know they had to be hollow, nor how to make them hollow. They were very heavy. I made even a mud house and put some butterflies inside them, not knowing they will die off. The point is: If you don't have, Innovate, however crudely.

Agnija Bharathi said...

Yes, I think it's creativity that attracts me to this festival.

varsha said...

Oh Girl!! now I know where you get your crafty streak from!! and all this reminds me of the innocent ways in which we used to have a huuuuge amount of fun and sense of community in those pre -digital,pre-Teevee and pre -mobile phone days !
I had no idea of how Chennai did its Navrarthras -FASCINATING !!Especially the reading and fine arts part ! I love South Indian Culture.

Agnija Bharathi said...

Hee hee. So was it Ramlila where you grew up?