The following piece about my mother was published in Deccan Herald at
Most people love to splurge on clothes, movies and food when they get some extra money. But how many actually invest it in a hobby?
Syamala Subramaniam is one such person who has been collecting diyas and oil lamps since the 1960s. The then newly-married homemaker would use the money her mother sent her every year during Deepavali and Karthikai to buy diyas.
She reveals that she had always wanted to collect diyas and started working on her hobby post marriage. “During the festive season, it’s a tradition for the parents of the bride to give her some money to buy new diyas,” says
So she would combine the festival money with the money she got in the
tambulam (a traditional gift consisting of betel leaves, limestone paste and coconut to name a few) during occasions throughout the year to buy extra diyas for her collection. “I have been collecting a pair every year since 1965,” recalls the 75-year-old lady, who is also into tapestry work, embroidery, knitting, beadwork and origami to name a few.
So it’s not a wonder when you see a range of gorgeous earthen lamps in different shapes and colours in her house. And it’s not just the terracotta diyas but also brass oil lamps of different sizes displayed beautifully in a showcase created specially for them. “Earlier, we lived in a rented house so I didn’t have a place to display my collection. So when this house was built in 1982, I got this showcase created specially for the lamps,” she narrates.
Ask her which is her favourite from the collection of over 60 oil lamps and hundreds of mud diyas and she says she likes them all. Yet she makes a special mention of the oil lamps as tiny as a button displayed artfully in her showcase. “They are too small to be lit but they look so beautiful that I had to have them in my collection,” she notes. Another lamp quite close to her heart is the kuthu vilakku, which is one of the oldest in her collection. “I dress this up during auspicious occasions as well. During the kuttu vilakku puja, which I generally do during Navaratri, the lamp is personified as a devi.
So you either dress one or three of these up as Durga, Saraswathi and Lakshmi,” she explains. She also has a wooden lamp with a bulb inside, which is the only electric lamp in her collection. “The kubera vilakku, which is a silver lamp with a glass base, is also a part of my collection,” she says.
Some of the earthen lamps are in the creative shapes of Santa Claus and Ganesha. In fact, some have been carefully painted by her in vibrant colours. One would notice that most of the brass lamps in the collection come in pairs and are displayed in an organised manner as Syamala is quite finicky about symmetry. “While most of these lamps are from Palakkad, some of the kuthu vilakkus are from Tamil Nadu,” she explains. In Bangalore, she buys most of these from Pottery Town.
Syamala makes sure that her collection is cleaned and dusted regularly. “Nowadays, I wash the oil lamps using Pitambari but in the olden days, I would wash them with tamarind,” she informs.
However, this hobby, which has continued for over four and a half decades, has slowed down now due to the issue of storage. “I give some of the unlit diyas away to family, friends and guests coming home. In fact, I gift them to anyone who I feel will care for them,” she sums up.