The Shiva Temple, central feature of Kalpakam Mami’s kolu this year

In his debut novel Clive Avenue, which has large chunks of his life growing up in Kasturi Estate, TS Tirumurti writes about Navaratri preparations made by Lakshmi, the hero’s mother –

“Navarathri arrived. Lakshmi was too tired to do a full-fledged kolu. She just had enough energy to do the usual nine steps and fill them up with all shapes and sizes of gods and goddesses and their steeds. She had just enough energy to decorate the kalasam by converting the coconut and silver pitcher into a goddess. She then had some more energy to rip off the clothes of a big doll, tie a mini-veshti around it, paint three streaks of white across its forehead and, lo and behold, it became the philosopher Adi Sankara. With a bowl he was placed in front of the Kalasam Goddess. To sing his devotional songs. Lakshmi finally had just that bit of bonus energy to print cards and invite all friends and relatives for the kolu. Please come and take some betel leaves and nuts, she invited all those she managed to speak to on phone. And she had just a final burst of energy to buy plastic bags and put in coconut, betel leaves and nuts along with a piece of silk cloth for the women. Lakshmi was now ready for the nine days ahead. She was exhausted but ready.”

That bit of prose could have fitted into any RK Narayan novel, which is not surprising considering that Tirumurti is the former’s grand-nephew, his grandmother Sundari being sister to RK Narayan and Laxman. That however, is not what I set out to write about.

Each year, as Navaratri approaches, I begin speculating on what the theme for the kolu will be at Tirumurti’s mother Kalpakam’s kolu. I have in some years asked Mami ahead and she has sometimes like Lakshmi in the novel declared that she finds it all too much and so there may not be much of a kolu. But there has never not been a kolu, and what’s more, each year the theme has been different. Central to this seemingly endless fount of imagination is Mami’s deep reading, her insight into Hindu philosophy, expertise in Tamil (she has for example written a set of poems, inspired by artist Keshav’s paintings to commemorate Andal’s Thiruppavai, and this has been published as a book),  knowledge of Sankara’s hymns and verses and of course her fund of stories from puranic lore.

The kolu at Mami’s place has never been conventional – not for her the steps with clay dolls. Maybe there was a time when they were also present. But as far as I can remember, Mami’s kolus always meant a set of tableaux, all comprising large dolls, to elaborate on the theme of the year. Getting these ideas into the form of a kolu has been possible through a collection of Gowri dolls from Mysore – the wooden ones with moveable arms and legs – that are so rare to get nowadays. Each year, Mami would get them into different garbs and get ups, to fit the theme. Post the kolu, they would be dismantled and stored in a wooden box. Once a burglar had the shock of his life. He took to his heels on seeing the dismembered heads and limbs, imagining that the family was into Kapalik practices!

A feature of this household has always been the way kolu is a matter of collective pride. Mami’s husband, the late TT Srinivasamurti was a jovial and helpful soul, who loved having guests. Though his contribution was according to Mami largely staying away from the preparations, he always took great pride in what was presented and made it a point to be there to welcome guests, holding a parallel court of sorts in the wide verandah. Daughter Mathangi has over the years been contributing more and more, and daughter-in-law Gowri, Tirumurti’s wife, has always been present for the occasion as has granddaughter Bhavani. In fact, the invite is always sent with the names of all the women of the household.

The Temple at Kalpakam Mami’s Kolu – another view

This year too, the absence of old Mr Srinivasamurti notwithstanding, all of us invitees turned out to see the kolu. The theme is Shiva with three displays – one of his emerging as a fiery being even as Vishnu and Brahma try to identify his feet and head, the second is of Bhrigu cursing Shiva to be worshipped as a linga and the last and to me the most delightful, a complete shrine in miniature, with a linga inside it. When I saw it I thought it was a stone structure and wondered as to how it had been designed, executed and transported into the house. It was that realistic. I learnt that the honey-coloured stone effect was given with thermocol and plywood backing, all designed by Mathangi and the craftsmen who work for her event-management company. The linga inside was truly a work of art and   to complete the temple effect, there was even a circumambulatory passage, with bowls of vibhuti and kumkumam. Truly it was a great effort, with sensational results.

And so Mami, kudos to you once again. I now begin speculating on what it will be next year, provided you have the energy of course 🙂


Those reading this story may also want to read this one –

Some Navaratri Dolls

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The Bengal Connect to Chennai’s Navaratri