Today is Malaya ammavasai, the day of payasam, vadai and tharpanam in Brahmin households in Chennai. Schools have closed and crates containing gollu bommai are down from the attic. There is dust all about and old people get into sneezing fits as the gollu padi is set. Gollu bommais are arranged and kolams are drawn, as the curtain falls for the first day of navarathri tomorrow.
When I was a young girl I was busiest during Navarathri holidays. After keeping gollu on Malaya ammavasai and after a heavy lunch, my mother and I went unmindful of the puratasi kaichal (September heat) to Madaveethi in Mylapore to buy betel leaves, areca nuts, kunguma chimizh, small mirrors and dainty combs, blouse pieces of different hues and little gifts to be given with thamboolam to friend and relatives who paid visits to our home for navarathri.
Of course every navarathri my mother bought me a new pavadai. It was stitched and kept ready even before the navarathari began. I wore the new skirt for the Saraswathi puja, I had several other pavadais for the rest of the eight evenings, there were three lovely Kanchipuram pattu pavadais with yards of tuck that I wore since I was eight years old till I turned fifteen. (Refer Foot Note on Tucks and Kanchipuram Pattu).
There were shundals prepared every evening – different lentils cooked and flavoured with coconut, red chillies and karuveppalai leaves. These were wrapped in old newspapers that were torn into neat squares, and given away with thamboolam to those who visited to see the gollu. Children went on all days to every house in the neighbourhood and came back home with different shundals from different household. There were always different shundals for dinner to meet the different tastes of the family members.
My mother recollected her days as a young girl when she and her friends dressed themselves as Krisha and Gopis and went to different homes, sang Meera bajans that MS Subbalaksmi popularised through her movie. My mother described the jewellery she wore for the occasion, I could visualise her dressed like Baby Kamala, the young actress and classical dancer of my mother’s era whose dance of the popular patriotic number ‘Aadovome palli paaduvome’
sung by D K Pattammal was an instantaneous hit in the movie ‘Naam Iruvar’.
Things have not changed much in Chennai. It is the same holidays, a laid back atmosphere among certain family members juxtaposed with frenzied activity amongst certain others; certain parts of the city especially Mylapore, Triplicane, T Nagar and places where Tamil Brahmins live are frozen in time. You will just have to walk through these localities to be transposed in time to your youth.
A Footnote On Tucks & Kanchipuram Pattu
This requires a blog by itself, but I shall make do with a footnote. When Kanchipuram pattu pavadais were bought for us it was a life time investment. Kanchipuram silk was expensive and long lasting, we wore these as long as our days of pavadai wearing lasted. How can this be possible with us growing taller each year? So tucks were invented, where yards of the silk, in several layers/ tucks were stitched inside the pavadai. Every year one tuck was opened out and the pavadai flowed longer to keep up with height that we gained. My mother stitched different patterned blouses every navarathri and gave a new avatar to the old pattu pavadais.
There were stringent dos and donts that were listed every time I donned my pattu pavadai. – do not play wearing pattu pavadai, do not sit on the floor while wearing pattu pavadai, do not make it wet, do not trail it on the floor, bunch it up while you walk. I followed these rules and my pavadais lasted well for over eight years. Do not please screw up your nose when I let you into this secret – my pattu pavadais had not been washed even once through all those years. There was no need, they never got dirty and I never wore my pavadai for more than a couple of hours every year. That was the tradition, washing does not go well with Kanchipuram silk, and somehow pattu will never be the same once it is washed. This was a common topic of discussion among my mother and her sisters when I was young. My mother suggested her sister to wash the sari at home and dry it without wringing it. Another aunt of mine shared the wisdom of giving the sari for dry wash, my mother did not subscribe to that – she confessed that her sari which had heavy jari weighed lighter after a dry wash.
My mother took great care of the Kanchipuram pattu saris. She aired them, pressed them by keeping them under the bed and wrapped them in my father’s old veshtis in such a manner that when folded the zaris of her different saris never rubbed against each other. Very rarely she washed them or gave for dry wash. Her marriage sari, the nine yards kura pudavai that she wore when my father tied the thali remained with her for 35 years. The maroon sari with gold border never lost its lustre, not once did she wash it. She wore it on all auspicious occasions and strangely because she did not wash it, the sari was considered as madi.