Navaratri is under way and dolls of all sorts are out on display. A traditional kolu is never complete without a pair of marappachi figures and the Thanjavur dolls. It is a delight to see them sway at a gentle touch.
Bhoopathy, a fifth generation doll maker of Thanjavur, says that although down South, the term ‘thalai attai bommai’ is used to refer to meek husbands, the dolls actually have a valuable message for children. Whichever way the dolls are tilted, once you let go, they come back to an upright position. Although life may have its pitfalls, one must always pick oneself up, and get on with one’s life.
The Thanjavur thalai atti bommai has been included in the Geographical Indication Registry, but Bhoopathy’s mother Unnamalai, who is busy painting a thalai atti bommai, says she doesn’t know what it means.
“The thalai atti bommai is also called Thanjavur Uruttu Bommai. My father-in-law used to make the dolls entirely of clay. My husband Shanmugam was the one who started to use papier mache. But the bottom is still made of clay,” says Unnamalai.
Shaped like a dish, the bottom is heavy and that’s what ensures that the dolls always remain upright. Once the clay dish has been made, it’s dried in the shade for two days and then in the sun for two days.
There are separate moulds for the body of the dolls. Tapioca powder is mixed with copper sulphate and is heated until it gets to halwa consistency. Then it is combined with plaster of paris and papier mache. The copper sulphate is to keep insects at bay.
The moulds are then dusted with chalk powder and the dough is pressed into the moulds. “The pressing has to be done carefully. The beauty of the facial features of the doll depends on the right degree of hand pressure,” explains Unnamalai.
Once the upper portions of the dolls are ready, they are glued to the clay dishes. Chalk powder is mixed with glue and this is applied over the dolls, which are then dried for two hours. They are then given a coating of paint. Thalai atti dolls come in a pair- Raja and Rani. This art of doll making became popular during Serfoji’s time, although it might be of even earlier origin, says Bhoopathy.
Unnamalai and Bhoopathy make dancing dolls and a variety of clay dolls too. Bhoopathy also has hired help. Meena, who works for him, is busy rubbing off raw edges in papier mache dolls. Hot favourites are the mini kolu and the village set. “We got a carpenter to make miniature kolu steps. And we have made tiny papier mache dolls to be placed on the steps. So you can have a ‘kolu’ in your ‘kolu,’” exclaims Unnamalai.
How are the moulds for the dolls made? “The moulds are made of mud, plaster of paris and cement. For the uruttu bommais we make our own mould. But for the other dolls, we have to buy the moulds, which come even in brass, but these are very expensive. Even the plaster of paris moulds are quite expensive,” says Bhoopathy.
How do they sell their dolls? “We are members of the Handicrafts Society. You can find our dolls being sold in the Palace Complex. But our mainstay are Khadi, Kuralagam and Poompuhar in Chennai. In Thanjavur, 10 families are engaged in making dolls and thalai atti bommai is made only here. It will help if the Government gives us credit on easy terms so that this art thrives,” says Bhoopathy.