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Golu: The “Garba” of the South

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October 2007
Golu: The “Garba” of the South

Navratri in the west of India is all about coming together in large numbers for raas-garba celebrations; in the South, it retains an indoor charm.

Commercial blitz, fancy dresses, loud outdoor gatherings and even youthful flirting is what now characterizes Navratri celebrations in most Western cities like Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Even as it still remains reverential and sacred to many true believers in these regions, the festival seems to have nevertheless made a leap from a religious celebration to a pop-culture event. For example, many venues of these mega events conduct competitions for the "Best dressed" to the "Best garba/raas performer."

Navratri, meaning ‘nine nights,' is a Hindu festival celebrated in October. The goddesses Durga (destroyer of evil), Lakshmi (wealth) and Saraswati (wisdom) are worshipped. Navratri has nationwide significance, but is celebrated in a number of different ways in the various regions of India.

In stark contrast to the public gaiety and pomp of the festival in the North and the West, Navratri in South India is primarily characterized by the tradition of "Golu", a charming, homely, and reverential custom of the season. Golu essentially means the decorative presentation of various dolls which are displayed on odd numbered tiers called padis. These can range from simple ones to elaborate ones consisting of several dozen dolls and displays.

Locally, the Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Riverdale keeps this tradition alive. Many devotees and patrons of the temple, as well as other temples, donate dolls for the display. Atlantan Anand Garlapati notes that traditional arrangements include bronze and copper statues of Hindu gods, puppets, folk art, kalamkari art, bidri art, and other collectibles or family heirlooms. As with other festivals, the pristine sanctity of the age old customs is often diluted with modern influences. According to Garlapati, pop icons such as Barbie, Pokeman, Spiderman, Batman etc are now creeping in into Golus of homes with children.

A Golu is often presented around a theme. "We select themes like ‘Krishna Leela', ‘Story of Rama' and ‘India's arts and crafts' to give glimpses of India and its cultural heritage to children," explains Radhika Sundararaghavan. "The dolls are arranged on the steps and appropriate paintings are hung on the walls to go with the theme selected. On the two sides of the steps we have a display of rangoli and different kinds of lamps. The whole area is decorated with flower garlands and string lights."

Radhika Ajay recollects that Golu was one of the most anticipated events during Navratri, as it was the only time when they could show off their best toys to friends. "There would be an unannounced competition for the best Golu in town," she adds. "It was funny, but as the years progressed, my kitchen toys started getting sophisticated. We went from the mini-grinding stone to the mini-mixie, and my mud plates were replaced with steel plates!"

Preeti Shah feels it is important to add a spiritual aspect. "While a lot of people keep Barbies, Christmas dolls and their children's toys, I take the pains to select mud dolls that tell our stories about Hindu deities."

Prabha Ramesh delights in seeing all her friends dressed in beautiful Kancheepuram saris and little girls in their traditional pattu pavadais. Usually women present guests (mostly married women and girls) with haldi (turmeric) and kumkum (powder of turmeric or other ingredients that is usually died red) along with a bag of gifts called "vethallai paaku" in Tamil Nadu. Various types of snacks and sweets, including sudal, are offered. It is believed that inviting people for this occasion is very auspicious and brings good luck.

"To me Navratri means celebration of womanhood, Shakti, who is considered to be the embodiment of desire, action and wisdom," declares Ramesh.

On the ninth day, books and musical instruments are placed in front of goddess Sarawati, along with flowers, fruits and prasadam. Ramesh feels the spiritual aspect is important. "On Saraswati Puja, we pray to the goddess of learning by arranging books, keeping musical instruments and keeping gadgets we use in day-to-day life," she says.

Shah presents an interesting perspective, as she celebrates Navratri with both Golu and Garba! "As a South Indian Tamil Brahmin woman, I keep the traditional Golu, but being married to a Gujarati, I also enjoy Garba and perform arti."

Whether Garba or Golu, Navratri is a glorious celebration signifying the triumph of good over evil. It is good to see that these rich Indian traditions are being preserved in our American lives.

By Archith Seshadri


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