Navaratri is here and with that the buzz in most households is all about dolls. The annual pilgrimage is made to Kuralagam, North Mada Street and other locations where clay idols are sold. It is a wonder that the reduced living space in most homes has in no way diminished the size of kolus. In fact they have only got bigger. Entire rooms are dedicated to them, the families managing out of makeshift arrangements in other parts of the house.

The Marapachis at home

Most homes will have a prized doll or two, passed down over generations. In mine it is a century-old marapachi couple, the traditional wooden figurines around which a kolu collection is built. But far more interesting are the old clay dolls, several of them clearly inspired by personalities of the times in which they were made. Thus the Alli Arjuna set, a couple in very western royal costume, is a throwback to Tamil theatre of the 1920s when KB Sundarambal and SG Kittappa ruled the roost, playing those characters.

Alli – probably modelled on SD Subbulakshmi

Another is the baby doll, modelled on a pose that Baby Saroja struck for a press photograph. The resemblance is striking, right down to the school bag and the posy of flowers she is holding. The first such images made their appearance in the 1930s.

Baby Saroja dolls

A decade later came the dancing doll, tilting her head and holding her skirt like a fan. This was modelled on Vyjayanthimala in AVM’s Vazhkai (Bahar in Hindi), in particular the song Nandagopalanodu naan aaduvene, sung by ML Vasanthakumari.

The dancing girl modelled on Vyjayanthimala in Vazhkai

But it is the artist Raja Ravi Varma who perhaps had the greatest influence on Navaratri dolls. His oleographs, found in the pooja rooms of most households set off an unprecedented demand for images/sets/friezes of the same kind. A prized possession in many homes is a set of six tableaus from the Ramayana, all directly copied from Ravi Varma. These comprise the breaking of the bow, the crossing of the Ganga, the killing of Jatayu, Sita in Ashoka Vana, the crossing of the ocean and the Pattabhishekam.

Rama, Sita & Lakshmana cross the Sarayu

Similarly, the iconic Lakshmi and Saraswathi as depicted by the painter became the standards for all clay dolls of these two goddesses. As for Adi Sankara, the only image we have of him is as depicted by Ravi Varma. The seer, either alone or with four disciples as seen in the painting, is a fixture in most kolus.

Much rarer, but still to be found in a few homes are the porcelain dolls inspired by the postures struck by Ravi Varma’s heroines. All of these were made in Germany in the pre Second World War years. Today’s China-made Hindu idols are therefore nothing new. The demand exists and so supply will be happen, from somewhere or the other! Ravi Varma’s Sakuntala and Menaka, Ahalya, Hamsa Damayanti and Saraswathi were all made in porcelain and shipped out. Sadly, very few have survived to tell the tale. Featured alongside are some samples from the collection of Radha Vasudevan. The Prince of Wales Museum (now Chatrapati Sivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) in Mumbai has a few others.

A residence that I visit each year during Navaratri is that of Kalpakam and TT Srinivasamurti. The kolu here is not the usual set of steps with dolls on them but just a couple of tableaus or at most three, featuring giant Gowri dolls made of wood. These were at one time exclusive to the Karnataka/Maharashtra areas and have the advantage that you can take them apart limb by limb and assemble them in various poses. At the Srinivasamurti home, the theme is different each year, mostly inspired by the puranas. There is also an amusing aside. The family dismantles the idols and stores them in a wooden box. Once a thief happened to break in at night and on opening the box took fright, dropped some of his belongings and ran away. He mistook the dismembered heads and torsos to be of dead humans!

A study of just the Dasavataram sets in various households would be interesting. How they came to be such a fixture in a kolu largely dedicated to Devi is a mystery until you read the Lalita Sahasranamam, which says that the ten incarnations sprang out of the ten fingernails of the Goddess. You will find the set in ivory, bronze, brass and clay. Nowadays the wooden set from Kondapalli is also popular. The one difference is that it features Gautama Buddha in place of Balarama.

At the end of it all, one question remains – when did this concept of kolu comprising clay dolls become so popular among Tamil people? Most historical records of Navaratri in Tamil Nadu do not mention it, though they invariably speak of Ayudha Puja. That should be a subject of research.

This article, based on one I did for this blog last year, inspired by the collection of old Kolu dolls at the Bungalow by the Beach in Tranquebar/Tharangambadi, appeared in The Hindu dated Sept 29, 2017 in the Friday Review dedicated to Navarathri.