During this festive season of Navratri, a family living in an old white bungalow in Mandavelipakkam in central Chennai has kept its doors wide open. Anyone can enter their home. All are welcome to climb the narrow stairway, walk across the sitting room to view the elaborate golu doll arrangement, laid out over nine steps designed specifically for this day.

Every guest is warmly greeted by three middle-aged siblings, Amarnath, Surendranath and Aparna, who call themselves the Mylapore Trio. “Anybody can come at any time, we make sure at least one of us is at home,” said Aparna, setting down a plate of crisp vadas and semiya payasam, a sweet dish.

Every year, the trio’s golu arrangement spreads across five rooms of their house. A traditional display of figurines set up during Navratri, golus are arrayed in the homes of people in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The golu represents the assembly of Goddess Durga who set out to battle the demon Mahishasura for nine days, defeating him on the tenth day. This auspicious day is celebrated as Vijayadashami, the triumph of good over evil.

The Mylapore Trio’s ability to blend creativity with traditional rules has made them immensely popular. The local media hails them as the “Cultural ambassadors of Mylapore”, organisers have been calling upon them to judge city-wide golu competitions for nearly 15 years, they even have a set of written guidelines for arranging golus.

Golu at Srirangam temple in 2015. Credit: Sri Mylapore Trio

Temple golus

It is not just their home that is decorated during the festive season. For the past eight years, the trio has been invited by the management of some of Tamil Nadu’s biggest temples, such as the Kapaleeshwarar temple, the Madurai Meenakshi temple, the Parthasarathy temple and the Ranganathaswamy temple of Srirangam. Everywhere, along with Bharatnatyam dancer Sugathan, who they consider their foster son, the team has set up elaborate thematic golus. In 2009, they installed an ashtadikh or eight-sided golu at the Kapaleeshwarar temple of Mylapore, a place they had frequented almost every day of their childhood.

“We could hardly believe it when such orthodox temples gave us a space to create our golu,” said Amarnath, in an awestruck voice. “We really made history.”

The four of them begin planning the temple golu up to six months in advance. “Setting up a golu for a temple is a real challenge,” said Surendranath. “Since thousands of people view it, the message has to be clear and proper and correct.”

Surendranath’s technical expertise has made him something of a creative head – he visualises the golu’s structure and makes arrangements with carpenters to build the stand and the backdrop. He insists, however, that all four of them contribute equally. For weeks together, the siblings and Sugathan mull over themes and brainstorm designs for their newest creation. “We don’t have any ego clashes, but we have lots of arguments,” said Amarnath.

Their first golu in Madurai in 2011 was based on the theme Shanmathan, Adi Shankara’s life. It drew lakhs of people, all standing in serpentine queues just to catch a glimpse of their artistic creations.

This year's golu at Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. Credit: Sri Mylapore Trio

Changing tradition

The art of golu arrangement has undergone a drastic change, said the siblings. The divinity associated with the golu is slowly ebbing away. “There is a clear difference between a school project and a thematic golu, but many don’t seem to understand that,” said Surendranath. “Why do people depict the Twin Tower attack or the sinking Titanic in their golu? It does not give a positive vibe at all.”

Golu dolls that have a contemporary take on Hindu gods is also something that the siblings do not approve of. “Why would you want to depict Ganesha talking on a cellphone?” asked Surendranath. “Or Krishna playing cricket? See I am not a fanatic. But the God has been created for some purpose and they have their own identity.”

It has become harder for them to find high-quality golu dolls that represent the gods and goddesses in their divine forms. “The few doll-makers who produce well-crafted dolls produce less and sell them abroad at expensive rate,” said Aparna.

This year's golu at the home of the Mylapore Trio. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Traditional upbringing

At home, since they anticipate guests any time, the trio are always dressed in festive wear during Navratri. On an afternoon last week, the eldest sibling, Amarnath, a history professor at Chennai’s Presidency College, was attired in a khadi kurta and a crisp white veshti. Similarly dressed was his brother, Surendranath, a freelance art director and the president of the Sri Sumukhi Rajshekaran Memorial foundation started by the Trio to engage with traditional South Indian art and culture. Their quiet sister, Aparna, stood beside them in an elegant silk sari of a matching colour. She is the national head of the Loans and Securities Department of ICICI Bank.

Despite having different day jobs, the siblings share a common love for the traditional art of golu arrangement. “All three of us are on the same wavelength,” said Amarnath, as his siblings nodded in agreement.

The three had a childhood steeped in the traditional cultural practices of a Hindu household in Mylapore, a neighbourhood known for its orthodox Brahminism. Still, their upbringing was unusual, in its own way. They were the foster children of Sumukhi and Rajshekaran, an influential Tamil Iyer couple in Mylapore known for its involvement in the traditional arts. The trio’s biological mother had also been fostered by the couple.

“They did not look at caste or creed or any such thing,” said Amarnath.

Right from their childhood, the siblings would involve themselves in the customs and traditions of the household, especially during festivals. “Each function used to be a grand affair,” said Amarnath. But they largely remained within the confines of the house. Each learned classical dance and music at the Kalakshetra foundation, a prestigious dance school in Chennai. “Our mother never taught us how to ride cycles, fearing that we would waste our time and lose interest in academics and arts,” said Amarnath. “Today, I proudly tell people that I cannot ride a cycle. If I had learnt it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Golu arrangement at Srirangam with an elaborate backdrop. Credit: Sri Mylapore Trio