Dolls and icons in varied hues, sizes and shapes herald Navaratri.

Meticulously realistic, whimsical, abstract or even surreal, kolu dolls are folk art expressions that unfold layers and tiers – in fact five tiers - in traditional settings of textured stories made up of gods, goddesses and mythological frames, dolls and tableaux bursting with colour, created out of mud, earth, straw, wood, stone or metal. The dolls are as much about the artisan’s devotion and tradition as about contemporary mythology ‘in the making’ and rural settings, which celebrate Nature.

The ‘All India Kolu Dolls Exhibition’ captures the festive sprit in a collection awash with colour and charm. Saffron yellow and peepul green 2 ft tall papier mache Hanumans and a sea of blue Krishnas in all sizes beckon, finished with porcelain-like sheen.

On view are beautiful 2 ft tall plaster of Paris Ganeshas, colourful Kondapalli tableaux of marriages, rural idylls, Radha and Krishna in leafy bowers and a wide range of icons. Not to be missed are green elephants, Ganesha pulling a horse cart, and ettikopakka leaf green Ganeshas in abstract art mode.

Colourful papier-mache figures are the focus of the exhibition, along with Marapachi dolls and clay figurines. Artisans from Tamil Nadu skilled in the papier-mache form present a plethora of icons including Krishna in vishwaroopam, a 2 ft Lakshmi on a shocking pink lotus along with antique- finish gods and goddesses. Clay artisans from Kolkata fashion tales from Panchatantra, Jagannath yatra and figures of Durga, Krishna and so on.

Kanishka Kundu, clay artisan from Kolkata, says, “I collect soil from the Ganga and mitti from the pond to create a whole range of tiny gods and goddesses. We mix the dough with our feet and after drying the mixture, go through the process of mixing once again. My icons are made with the help of moulds, while the delicate work of incising and detailing of face, clothes etc is done with a fine wooden needle. After this, firing is done followed by painting.” His tiny vignettes of Radha-Krishna, Jagannath with Subhadra and Balaram, Tirupathi Balaji and tales from the Panchatantra present a mini pageant of the epics and local lore.

In the past, Marapachi bommais were a must in every kolu brought out of dusty trunks and dressed up for Navaratri. Basu Moni revives this tradition in his handcrafted marapachis made from kongu wood, which he buys from the market, cuts to size and dries for 9-10 days. “Then begins my work involving drawing a rough outline on the wood surface and cutting it to shape with handmade instruments, scooping and carving etc. Once the facial features and typical postures have been created I make the dolls shine with emery followed by wax polishing.”

The ‘All India Kolu Dolls Exhibition’ is on view at 13/7 North Mada Street (near Kapaleeshwara Temple), Mylapore till Navaratri.