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Friday, June 9, 2023

The Navaratri aesthetic

People celebrate Navaratri all across Bharat in many ways. But the scope of this essay is limited to the celebration of Bommai golu/Bommala koluvu/Gombe Habba, which has delighted children and adults across southern Bharat for centuries. The Navaratri kolu presents a teaching opportunity in many ways. We will focus on only one aspect here: to introduce children to the concepts of Hindu aesthetics.

Aesthetics is the art of appreciating beauty. Everything about Navaratri speaks of beauty. Children delight in alankara or embellishing displays with colored lights, rangolis, and accessories for dolls. We can analyze the arrangement of dolls, the distance between them, placement, nested rangoli designs, lighting, and other features through the lens of Vedic aesthetics.

Dolls can be of many kinds, ranging from simple wooden ones to bright, heavily jeweled, and ornamented ones. The innate quality of the doll can be called its guna. There are three types of gunas that any object can have: Prasada guna (light, simple, quality), Ojo guna (the quality of Ojas referring to heaviness, here it can mean gorgeously ornamented dolls). Anything that falls in between is said to have Maadhurya guna (pleasing but neither too simple nor too intricate). 

We can place objects together in 3 primary styles called reetis: simple style (Vaidarbhi), complex, tightly-knit style (Gaudi), or a style with mixed features of both (Panchali). 

That’s a lot of terms, but now we have some tools to understand design principles. Let your child look at various kolu arrangements and identify these categories. Are most of the dolls simple or heavily jeweled? Are they arranged with lots of spacing (Vaidarbhi) or tightly packed with lots of decoration, shiny pieces of cloth, glitter, and many-colored lights? (evidence of Gaudi style).

Guna and Reeti – the quality of the dolls and the arrangement style – can be combined to give a unique display aesthetic. Suppose you have simple dolls arranged with spacing. In that case, it is a combination of Prasada guna and Vaidarbhi reeti. We see in big temples rows upon rows of gorgeous dolls arranged closely together (a combination of Ojo guna with Gaudi reeti). 

The value of this analysis lies in its applicability to all situations. If a child has a project to turn in, how can he design it? How about setting the table for dinner? Which style(reeti) does one favor while dressing up? A simple Vaidarbhi reeti, a pleasant Panchali reeti, or Ojo guna style chunky jewelry? 

One of the main theories of Hindu aesthetics is the Rasa theory which originates in the Natya shastra. Rasa theory divides human emotions into navarasas or nine categories. Each rasa arouses a different emotional experience in the viewer. Choice of dolls can highlight different rasas. For example, bhakti rasa arrangements can choose the great Vaggeyakaras, poets, and composers like Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shyama Sastri, Mirabai, Tukaram, Purandaradasa, and others.

For a predominantly Sringara rasa arrangement, the display can focus on divine couples and themes like Sita-Rama kalyanam, Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar kalyanam, and sets depicting wedding ceremonies.

Veera rasa can be highlighted by featuring battle scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, or the Mahishasura Mardini theme. A display of brave kings and queens of India falls under Veera rasa too. 

Suppose your Veera rasa display shows the Rani of Jhansi fighting her battles in a fighter aircraft. It violates an essential principle of aesthetics called Auchitya (propriety). In this case, the Kaala auchitya, or appropriateness of time, is violated. Auchitya is an interesting concept. It is defined not by its presence but by its absence. It is noticeable in real life when something is missing or inappropriate. To understand this concept, have kids discuss the auchitya of wearing shorts to a temple. We may not notice thousands of appropriately dressed people. But a person dressed inappropriately for an occasion sticks out like a sore thumb.

Speaking of Jhansi, who doesn’t feel a thrill when they see or hear that word? It refers to a place but packs much, much more. The word suggests bravery, heroism, courage, though nothing in the word itself indicates all these qualities. This type of suggestion carried by a word or image is called Dhvani. Dhvani is an essential concept of Indian aesthetics, made famous by Anandavardhana in a well-known book called Dhvanyaloka. 

Kids will love pointing out examples of Dhvani in commercials and newspaper headlines. Does your local newspaper use clever or misleading headlines? Does a magazine or website put up a picture to suggest something? Dhvani is a handy concept that gives us enjoyable ‘aha’ moments when we grasp the underlying meaning. Talk to your kids about examples of Dhvani and how suggestive messages are broadcast by media every day. These subliminal messages will have a negligible effect on a child trained to recognize Dhvani.

Navaratri offers an outlet for creative energies while providing a glimpse into the vast cultural treasure that we have inherited. Innovative thinking also has a name in Hindu aesthetics: it’s called Vakrokti, described in detail in a book called Vakrokti Jeevitam. When kids display unique creativity and new ways of arranging the dolls (maybe circular steps instead of rectangular ones), they would have put Vakrokti into practice.

We can use the same concepts to analyze music too. Children love the Mahishasuramardini stotram ‘Aigiri-Nandini,’ usually played during Navaratri. What is the mood (vritti) the poet wishes to create in this stotram? The use of simple words (Prasada guna words), combined in a complex style (Gaudi reeti) to subtly suggest grandeur and majesty, leads to Arabhati vritti. Kids will be interested in knowing that there is an entire field of study and analysis of poetics called alankara shastra. We enjoy many stotrams and songs due to the magic of shabda alankara, the embellishment of sound.

While studying English literature, schools teach kids about simile, metaphor, and meters (such as iambic pentameter). In Indian language poetics, we have corresponding figures of speech to analyze words and their meanings, which form a well-defined system of  shabdalankaras and arthalankaras. Each successive scholar has elaborated on many more, starting from four basic alankaras defined in Natya Shastra. The final count runs into hundreds of alankaras! 

The concept of paaka is vital in communication. If you find this article easy to understand, it can be said to follow Draksha paaka (as easy as getting the juice out of a grape). If it requires some effort to understand, it follows the Kadali paaka (like a banana that requires peeling before enjoying it). If it takes a lot of effort to understand, it is like Narikela paaka (as hard as de-husking and breaking open a coconut to enjoy its flavor). How easily does a viewer relish the kolu display?

Navaratri offers a chance to bring an atmosphere of divine joy into the house. So far, we have seen terms to describe:

– the quality of dolls (guna), 

– the way they are presented (reeti), 

– the mood aroused in a viewer (rasa), 

– innovative arrangements (vakrokti), 

– suggestive power contained in words (dhvani), and

– lack of propriety (lack of auchitya),

– mood (vritti),

– embellishment (alankara), and

– ease of communication (paaka).

Armed with a knowledge of aesthetic elements, kids can exercise their design skills to set up the kolu display differently every year. It gives them a way to play with presentation and style, whether applied to arranging a table, one’s closet, or creating a mood. While preparing a report or presentation, they can take a step back and see if the communication resembles draksha paaka or kadali paaka.

We can use these beautiful terms from our civilization to think and communicate the same way we have been doing for many centuries. They give richness to thought and vocabulary.

These principles, once internalized, can also be drawn upon and applied to our dress, preferences, and the way we present ourselves to the world. Aesthetics offers a way to analyze the world and to communicate effectively. 

Being aware of aesthetics helps us appreciate beauty, pay attention to small details, and live in harmony. The Navaratri experience will help children enjoy beauty and joy in their surroundings. The few concepts of Hindu aesthetics mentioned here offer just a glimpse into a rich analysis elevated to perfection by our ancients. They will give kids tools to understand the importance of aesthetics and apply them to a modern context. 

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Ex-software engineer.  MBA. Outspoken mom. Artist. Student of Vedic Sciences. Writes at the confluence of parenting, Hindu dharma and the arts. Twitter: @Indic_Angle


  1. Tyagaraja was the most well known Carnatic musiccomposer of South India. He was born on May 4 in 1767 AD in a Telugu family, which belonged to the smartha Mulakanadu sect of Brahmins in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. The songs of Tyagaraja are composed mainly in the pallavi, anupallavi and a single or several charanams format. These songs can also be incorporated in the concert platform. Apart from writing the standard songs, Tyagaraja also composed songs, which were collectively called the ‘Utsava Sampradaya Kriti’.


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