Sunday, October 25, 2020

Navaratri - Memories from past

 The below article was first published in ' Financial Express'.

The year 2020 has been extremely overwhelming for all of us. A striking effect of this pandemic has been the social distancing and not getting to socialise in person with our family and friends as before. With Navaratri round the corner, it got me thinking how this year’s festivities would unravel. While each region celebrates this festival in different ways, my region celebrates this Devi festival with an arrangement of dolls called ‘Kolu or Golu’ signifying the Darbar of Devi.

The very name “Navaratri” evokes powerful childhood memories in me. What strikes me the most about these memories are that not one of them is materialistic  but most of them about social bonding. 

With festive time closer, my mind is wandering around Mylapore, an affluent neighbourhood famous for sacred sites and a cultural centre in Madras. Festivals are interwoven into the life of Mylapore and navaratri is no exception. It is in these vacations that I have built many cherish worthy memories which are now my emotional cushions. If you are a person who believes in vibrations and positive energy of a place, then Mylapore is one such divine place. The thought of this magical place beckons me to relive and celebrate my childhood Dussehra vacation and immortalise them in this column .

Growing up in Bangalore, Dussehra vacation was something I looked forward to during my school years. Like to many, vacations meant no regular routine and festivals meant food and fun but I looked forward to the time with my extended family. The last day of mid-term would be Kannada exam that would end by 10.30 a.m and my train to my grandparents home in Madras, the Brindavan express would be at 1.20p.m. This was an annual highlight — a solo travel where my dad would put me onboard and my grandfather would pick me up at Madras Central and the next 15 days would be at thatha-paati’s (grand parents) home in Kutcheri road, Mylapore.

At home, a few days before Navaratri, after dusting and cleaning the whole home, the elders would be busy in the kitchen and in their noon day siesta time, they would climb the attic and pull out biscuit tins, planks and clay dolls. I would zealously wait down looking to unwrap the dolls covered in old clothes and newspapers. The musty smell that came with the wrappings remains fresh in my mind even today. The toys were old heirlooms which the family inherited from one generation to another. The dolls would be cleaned and if need be given a touch-up or repainted.

The big biscuit tins and wooden planks would morph into a ‘golu’ display stand. The square tins would hold the wooden plank and thus 11 steps were formed which almost covered half of paati's room on the ground floor. The whole arrangement would be draped with thatha’s veshti (white dhoti) and pinned with crepe ribbons. All the clay dolls and porcelain dolls would be arranged on the steps by elders symbolising ascension of spiritualism over materialism, so the Gods would be at the top and the material world would be at the bottom,  but only after placing the auspicious kalasham (holy pot) signifying the presence of Devi .

My role, every year, was to set up the park on the ground below the mandatory steps. It was a joy for me to remove the toys from my wicker basket, sourced from the makeshift shops around the nearby teppakulam (temple pond). Tiny chairs, tiny figurines, miniature coconut trees, hand pump, homes would all be landscaped with the beach sand and the soaked ragi (millets) was sprinkled which by the third day would add beauty with their lush micro-greens and give a lawn effect. The roads were laid with used coffee grounds which would be collected and dried before and match sticks would be used to make a fence. It was always so much fun, as a child, to build this beautiful park, leaving me with a sense of pride to flaunt my masterpiece. Just reminiscing and writing about this reminds me how important it is to create festival traditions that establish such positive memories.

In the morning, the pooja rituals were done by the elder ladies; snacks for the invitees would be made in the kitchen like sundal (seasoned legumes) and some finger foods for kids like kai-suttu murukku, thattai (savouries)and laddus.

Evening I would go around with my aunt to visit homes to view others  golu arrangements, while mami and paati would receive the guests at home. It was fun hoarding sundal  from one home to another with small token gifts for us little girls.

It was also mandatory for us to visit the nearby Kapali koil, to participate in the festival. The whole area around the temple would be festive and matching it on ground , around teppakulam and mada veedhi (The lanes around temple), were hawkers selling traditional mann bommais (clay dolls) and other small  items. The regular shops like Srividya, Giri’s, Sukra’s, Vijaya stores, Ambika would be doing brisk business selling flowers, pooja and gift items.

I would walk with elders through the narrow streets to reach the Kapali temple and praying to the God was the last thing on my mind. I was more besotted by the festive atmosphere — the peacocks and the golu at the temple and the decorated deities were a visual feast. After the darshan we would sit and enjoy the cultural concert and walk back home with sundal in our hands.

What can be more special for a child than to have delicious food, fun and token gifts during various golu visits. The bonding time at relatives and friends place are all the rich memories that I would hoard as I returned for home, again on Brindavan Express. That was my childhood navaratri. A couple of years when I did’nt make it to Madras, I ended up in Mysore Dussehra with my parents.

Years later, when my daughter and son were born, I started the tradition of keeping golu. Living in a multi- cultural condominium, this pan Indian festival which charmingly links religions, rituals, social and cultural traditions has given my children a lot more memories and exposure to different cultures. Festivals, besides being an occasion to gather and socialise with family and friends over food and fun, for me is to pass on the baton of our rich culture and tradition to my children to assimilate, absorb and bring a smile on their face.

This pandemic festive time with the new normal, things are going to be different. Maybe virtual golu tours and social media wishes to compensate for the social gatherings? Given all, we must take solace in the environmental recovery of fewer carbon footprints, clean roads, clear skies, breathable environment while recalling the whole bunch of memories and keeping the tradition alive with digital vibes. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Once upon a time....

  • Today on World Storytelling day, I had to share about my journey as a storyteller. Here goes the column published first in financial express.

 Oral Storytelling is one of the oldest and most loved cultural tradition. A tradition that has been passed on from one generation to another. This oral art continues to be relevant, even today in our media-saturated society.

I believe we are all storytellers and are made up of stories. We have grown listening to them. The stories can be folklore, mythology, fiction or stories of family and friends. These stories besides enriching us are the threads that weave our life and we inherit and leave these as a treasured legacy. We may not remember all the stories but we sure remember how we heard the stories from our family and friends.

My earliest memory that I recall of listening to a story is from my  Grandmom’s elder sister who would lie beside me and tell stories of mythology, tales of common man, folk tales, etc. She would gesticulate with her wrinkly hands and modulate her voice as the story changed the settings from a forest to a Kingdom to a faraway land. The story I was told to was a ‘Kozhakattai’ (modak) story in my mother tongue, Tamil. At that age, though storytelling was a bait to retire to bed, today when I look back, I am able to appreciate that art of storytelling in its purest form, oral tradition.

My grandparents, parents, and extended family were all my family storytellers. My parents would make up stories during my bedtime, which when narrated made me feel secure and comfortable. Stories involving the members of our family, our ancestors or some living memory, some amusing incident or something about how the ancestors owned an entire village, their contributions were retold in simple unpolished ways. Many family stories like the ‘Dhanushkodi story’, a town on the east coast of India, which marooned when a killer cyclone with a high tidal wave blew away all structures and almost wiped the whole town. A few survived to tell the tale and one of the surviving family was my mom’s uncle. Another favourite - The ‘Burma story’ was about how my maternal grandfather walked from Burma to India through the forests with 3 bottles of Kim (a malted beverage) in his backpack during the war. The other story from my paternal side was how the famous Saint Ramana Maharishi was saved from the thieves by my great grandfather, then Deputy Superintendent of Police. This story although told to me by my grandfather, it gave me greater joy to hear this from the then ashram president, Sri Ramanananda (grand nephew of the saint). These family stories are like the blueprint for our family identities. I have inherited so many such powerful family stories as a valuable legacy.

In early school days, we had an exclusive oral storytelling period. In English, we listened to fairy tales like Thumbelina, folk and mythological tales and; during Kannada class we heard stories of powerful women like  Onakke Obavva, Rani Abbakka of Ullal, the poignant Punyakoti’s story. At the homefront, besides family stories, I was dragged to the traditional storytelling sessions in temples like pravachans, Harikathas and kathakalakshepam (stories and lectures on mythology) by Paati. Our Sanskrit pandit would narrate stories from Malavikagnimitra, Abhignana Shakunthala, Kumarasambhavam, etc. So many oral story listening and hearing opportunities when mass and satellite communication was not popular.

My storytellers must have had a profound influence on me that even today wherever I see the word “Storytelling” in print or in e-media my eyes stop there and throw me back in time. The morals or values did not sink into my little brain then, it was more entertainment, but I guess, I was besotted with the art of storytelling like gesticulations, the emotions, body language, expressions, the bonding, etc.

I was educated for a career in electronics but these storytellers somewhere must have left such a deep influence in me that many years later my passion for stories lured me to take up a profession of a storyteller. When an opportunity came my way, I grabbed it. I practiced voice diction, modulation, body language and with experience, I built my repertoire and slowly found what stories made an impact on young, evolving minds. Gradually I developed into a life-skill facilitator (visiting faculty) which involved teaching life skills through interactive stories, conducting theatre workshops for children. My students taught me more than what I learned in my student life.

I found the choice of the stories was important, while I chose simple interactive stories with repetitive lines for lower classes. Little children loved hearing the same story and would even mindlessly repeat the catchy words as they skipped and hopped out of the class.  Middle school children were more interested in fun stories and stories of wisdom but honestly as a storyteller, I let the magic of the story unfold, I never put forth the moral or made it sound preachy, the moral was always brought out by the children and not all stories had to teach or have a moral. They were inquisitive and were open to thinking out of the box. Teenagers in higher classes were interested in historical stories and real-life stories. They were able to empathize and understand the stories better.

The stories I told them not just entertained, enchanted and delighted them but the ideas molded the young minds. The children would embellish the sessions with their own experiences, thoughts, and ideas. The storytelling sessions in fact, turned into story listening sessions for me since the communication became two way. I believe stories have that power. Apart from teaching and enriching with tangibles like vocabulary, expression, modulation; they teach values like empathy, perseverance, to inspire, to dream, and to imagine possible worlds. We cannot evaluate them in grades but they add value to their living to raise them as empathetic and compassionate humans.

It is often said that that today’s children rely more on visual mediums and refuse to sit and listen. From my experience, I have seen children and even elders to whom stories are told, sit and learn to listen. An invaluable skill that will see them through school, college, work, and  life. Storytelling is all about communicating, listening, interacting which are important ingredients of a healthy family or community. Besides family and educational institution, today storytelling is also part of organisations, corporates, associations. They improve social inclusion, people management, team building, leadership skills. Oral storytelling is a fascinating art to bring people together.  I believe it enriches family life, fosters communities and fraternity.

Here is the link.