It's time to bring out your dolls. Did you know that there are several towns that specialise in making these dolls?
When you read the word “doll”, what comes to your mind? A Barbie in a pretty pink dress, a huge white teddy bear clutching a heart or a life-size baby complete with a pacifier and bloomers to boot? These are but obvious imagery. Every year, dolls of different kinds take the centrestage for nine whole days.
That time is now. Navartiri or Dasara is celebrated in different parts of the country with slightly similar beliefs underlying them. It is a festival dedicated to the female goddess or Shakti and is known by different names. While in Bengal and Gujarat, the highlight of the celebrations are Dandiya and Garba Rass, in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the dolls and their arrangement called the kolu take significance.
The dolls arranged in the kolu (meaning an assembly), make their way into the homes from different parts of the country. While most of the dolls are figures of gods, there are also dolls modelled on saints, popular figures and those that reflect everyday life. The arrangement of the dolls in the odd-numbered steps (1, 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11) follow this hierarchy.
Dolls and where they come from:
Kondapalli: This town near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, gained popularity as the place that manufactures of the soft Poniki wood dolls. This particular type of wood is chosen because it is light weight, flexible and strong. The dolls, inspired by village life, and deities, are made piece by piece and are stuck together using an adhesive paste made of tamarind seeds, followed with a coating of lime glue. The Dasavathar set, the chariot, elephant ambari and bullock cart sets are quintessentially Kondapalli dolls. The oil or water colours give life to these light-weight miniature dolls, with their own distinct painting style.
Chennapatna: This quaint town near Bengaluru in Karnataka would have remained in oblivion if not for the art that makes it a name recognised globally. Chennapatna is a “traditional craft that is protected as a geographical indication (GI) under the World Trade Organisation, administered by the Government of Karnataka”. This traditional craft is famous for its colourful wooden toys ranging from rocking horses to rattles, tops to pen stands and even dolls depicting life in a village. Natural dyes are used to colour the toys. and are blended with lac to make lac sticks which are then applied to the finished wooden objects. This age old traditional art dates back to the reign of Tipu Sultan who is said to have invited Persian artists to teach his artisans the craft.
Marapachi dolls: Literally meaning “wooden dolls”, come in pairs — a male and female. Traditionally, gifted to a couple at the time of their wedding many Marapachi dolls are usually handed down from one generation to another. Marapachi dolls are made in Tirupathi, and are also considered to signify Venkateshwara and his consort. These dolls are known for their intricate carvings and the elaborate attires that people dress them in.
Thanjavur: No kolu is complete without the Thanjavur thalaiatti bommai or simply known as the Tanjore dancing dolls. Included in the Government of India Geographical Indications Registry, the dancing dolls made of either clay. They are so called wood pulp or papier maché, are called so because of their bobbing head and body, that are made separately and balanced such that the parts oscillate. The colourful paints and features add to the elegance of the miniature dancers.
The Navarathri kolu does not restrict itself to dolls from the South. Works of artisans from across the country find a place in the odd-numbered steps of the kolu. The credit largely goes to organisations like Poompuhar and other handicrafts development corporations and institutions which bring arts from across the country together, making it easier for people to access them.
Rajasthan: Just like the people of Rajasthan, their dolls are vibrant, colourful and extravagant too. Made from a combination of cloth and wood, these dolls popularly portray traditional dance and dancers, bride and groom and people going about their everyday activities. This traditional craft is famous for its puppets too.
Kolkata: The Dasara festival sees mass production of larger-than-life statues of Durga. Kalyani and Shantiniketan get busy with their miniature versions and other dolls that are sold across the country . These terracotta versions are amazingly life-like.
Making dolls for a living
N. JAGADEESWARAN: I have been in this business for the past 35 years. It is what my father and forefathers have been doing, and it was but natural for me to get into it. Earlier the dolls were made using natural hand-ground paint which was easy to work with. Now, we use the regular paints that are quick to dry and brighter compared to the natural paints. We also work with a lot of materials like papier-mâché, chalk and stone powder apart from clay.
Ironically, now the demand for the dolls has gone up but the number of people who are in this business are few. This is a job where income is not guaranteed. We rely on festivals like Navartri and Vinayaka Chathurthi for mass sales. Apart from these festivals, regular sales go on at showrooms like Poompuhar.
The Japanese have a tradition similar to kolu. The Hinamatsuri or the dolls festival is celebrated on March 3, to bless the girl child with happiness and prosperity. On this day, the hina-ningyo dolls are arranged according to hierarchy on steps covered with red carpet or cloth. At the top are the Emperor and Empress, followed by the three court ladies (sannin-kanjo), and then the five musicians (gonin-bayashi), two ministers (udaijin and sadaijin), and three servants. These dolls are also accompanied by small pieces of furniture, food and other things. The Japanese believe that the bad spirits and troubles are taken by the dolls which are then discarded into the sea or river.