Unique doll displays bring people together

Despite busy schedules, many Bangaloreans have kept bombe displays in their homes. A chance to keep tradition live and display artistic creativity, it brings families and friends in a joyful get-together.

Dasara or Navarathri is celebrated by different communities in different ways. In Bangalore, many families celebrate Gombe Habba (festival of dolls) by arranging dolls, new and old. This is also called bombe koorisodu, bombe kolus, bommala kolu, and the dolls are usually made of clay or wood, and nowadays with Plaster of Paris (PoP). The tradition has passed on from generation to generation, and is accompanied by a variety of customs, pujas, story-telling and food.


Tableaux depicting a scene from Ramayana, created by Soumya Srikanth. Pic: Deepti Sarma.

Patronised by the Mysore maharajas, and with a large number of doll manufacturers in the Bangalore-Mysore region, the festival remains popular, albeit evolved to suit modern sensibilities.

Tradition kept alive

There are many families who are particular about following tradition. K Rajagopal of Padmanabha Nagar says this tradition has been passed down three generations. With his grandfather a draftsman at the Mysore palace, he had seen and heard so much about the Dasara grandeur at the palace. This year is the 113th year of Navaratri celebrations in their family. They have displayed the Mysore Dasara procession.

“It’s a tradition to keep a new doll every year”, explains Lata Hari from Mahalakshmi Layout, as she shows me around the display.  Lata’s parents are from Palakkad and the distinct Kerala touch, with a display of ‘Sabari Mala’ adds a fresh outlook to the whole arrangement. The array of dolls of the various gods – Krishna, the avatars of Vishnu, Shiva, Muruga – were vast and very colourful. Even the lamp had been decorated with jewels. Narayan, Lata’s father, explains, “We treat the lamp as ‘Ambal’ (goddess). So we adorn her with jewels.” 

Vasuki Rangasesha, in his mid thirties, a chartered accountant, who resides in Malleshwaram, believes that the entire setting up of dolls is a family effort. Rangasesha’s mother Savitri has been displaying dolls of Lord Krishna from all over the country for over 30 years now.
This year’s theme is from the Bhagwad Gita – Lord Krishna’s teachings on ‘doing your duty with full commitment and not worrying about the result or benefit’. The festivities also include chanting of Vedas by the temple priests in the evenings and a gathering of family and friends.

Doll displays open to public:
Bimba the art hut, Basavanagudi Ph: 41489354
Dhaatu, Banashankari Ph: 65683396
K Rajagopal, Padmanabhanagar Ph: 26393583
K R Padmaja, Yeshwantpur Ph: 23374758
Soumya Srikanth Ph: 9342015272

Doll arrangements vary from simple display of dolls in a step format to extravagant themes and dolls from all over the world. K R Padmaja, who is in her sixties, is one such person who has displayed over 5000 dolls. Dashavataram is her main theme this year. Padmaja’s family runs an arts academy (Shanthala Arts, located at their Yeshwantpur  home) which also hosts a series of cultural programmes during these festive times. Padmaja has also won prizes from Bharati Vikas Parishad (a cultural organisation that conducts competition for the best doll arrangement each year, see box).

Depicting classics with creativity

While for some, kolu may be about tradition and story-telling, for Event Manager Soumya Srikanth, it’s also about creativity. swomya

Soumya Srikanth with a model of Shivagange. Pic: Deepti Sarma.

Sowmya happens to make all her dolls by hand. Her preparations start with deciding a theme and then creating backdrops and finally the place with appropriate clothing and accessories. The dolls are made by wrapping wool over a wire frame, with wooden heads from Chennapatna. Her scenes from Ramayana and Shivagange depict the mood of the story whether the tragic death of Jatayu or festivities in Ayodhya on Rama’s return from Lanka.

Competing for the best display

Bharat Vikas Parishad, a social organisation has been conducting competitions for doll display in Bangalore for over 19 years. Seven neighbourhoods in the city including Vijaynagar, Jayanagar, Malleshwaram, Rajajinagar, Indiranagar have members from the organisation who visit 10-12 houses in each locality and select the top two doll arrangements.

A winner is chosen from among them and prizes distributed at a function in October. For more details, contact: Bitotha Shetty at 9343205513

Bimba, the art hut is another such creative place which emphasises attention to detail. This is “an artist’s navaratri”, emphasises Deepak Dorai who along with his artist-wife Deepika runs the organisation in Basavangudi. This is “miniature still theatre”, as Deepak describes their presentation called Rasaalok. Every year, they handcraft a particular scene from the classics.

This year, one of the scenes is from the life story of Muttuswami Dikshitar – one of the trinity of Carnatic music. All the dolls, their garments, jewels, accessories are hand crafted and every minute detail of the scene – like the parrots on the tree, intricate elements of small jewels, and the dots on the Myna tells us about the artists’ eye for detail.

For another Banashankari-based couple Anupama and Vidyashankar Hosakere, the tradition of dolls, puppets and the art of story telling is a passion, and they do this through puppetry.

Their organisation Dhaatu, has dolls varying in size – from thumb sized wooden ones to larger than life giant ones. The main theme of this year is Krishna Tulabhara and the armies on the 13th day of the Mahabharata war. There are scene by scene depictions of Ramayana and Mahabharata stories as well.

Is there a downtrend in kolu?

In an age of ‘dying’ traditions, Padmaja feels the custom is getting popular among youngsters in the recent years, who are more than willing to be part of such occasions. But Soumya says she sees a downtrend in people’s interest in setting up the kolu. “People today have less time due to work and busy schedules but even a small setup at houses can make a difference in keeping the tradition and creativity alive”, feels Soumya, who wishes to open a gallery some day to narrate the stories.

Fun and learning for children

On the other hand, children like two-year-old Smriti, look forward to this festival with much enthusiasm. Smriti loves the doll arrangements, especially the display of the Bandipur National Park that her grandmothers, Vatsala and Meena, have created in their BTM Layout house. The arrangement mixes tradition with learning about animals.

krishna idols

Display by Savitri Rangasesha. Pic: Deepti Sarma.

At JP Nagar, Amogh S Bharadwaj, 9, explains the bombe (dolls) arranged in steps at his house, with practiced ease. His mother Dr Amulya Subramanya, a dental surgeon, started arranging dolls four years back. He shows me the figures of gods, mythological and folk characters, dolls acquired during his parents’ travels around the world, from Tashkent to Korea, and finally his favourite, a cricket match set.

Vasuki Rangasesha feels that the pictorial representation of Gombe makes it very memorable for the children and is one of the best ways to teach children moral values. “Even if the children do not understand about ‘atma’ and ‘paramatma’, repeated learnings from the kolu dolls make them remember that one must do good deeds”, he says.

Like Rangasesha, many families hope Gombe Habba will help pass on traditions to children. At the least, like he concludes, during the festival time children are “busy setting up the kolu and thereby spend less time watching television”. ⊕


Related Articles

Five decades of Gombe (Kolu) tradition
Visual delight of Navarathri


  1. Sun says:

    Hello, Can you please let me know where to buy steps for keeping Kolu?

    Thank You

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