All around him, gods and goddesses wait to be restored to their old glory. Paramasivan is the only old-doll painter in Mylapore

S.Paramasivan

Occupation – Painting and restoring old golu dolls

Paramasivan is bent over a clay doll. He dips a brush into a small tin of paint, and coats the arms white; all around him, gods and goddesses wait to be restored to their old glory. “I used to be a sign board painter, but when flexi boards and back-lit boards appeared, work dried-up,” he says. Paramasivan then over 60, was wondering how to earn a living, when “a thambi from Arisikaaran street” gave him an old Krishna doll to paint. “It changed the course of my life. After years of hardship, I finally made some money. Now, I’m able to look after my wife as well as she does me,” he says fondly.

As the only old-doll painter in Mylapore, Paramasivan’s shop near Chitrakulam attracted business by word of mouth. Very meticulous with his work, he would never accept orders for a ‘light touch-up by the evening’, as that sort of work satisfied neither him nor the customer. “Look at this Ayyapan,” he points to the tall idol on the table. “It’s very heavy, made of clay; they gave it to me over three months back.

The left-hand was damaged, and I repaired it by placing an iron wire inside, and strengthened it with metal paste. Then I smoothened the idol with sandpaper and applied cement primer, followed by enamel white. Finally I mixed these seven or eight colours to achieve the original colours of the idol.” In the olden days, Paramasivan says, egg white was mixed with natural colourants and applied with a cock’s feather. And the muted tones — unlike the newer, garish ones — lasted hundreds of years.

“But the charm of old golu dolls lies in their divine look. Today, doll-makers cast good moulds, but it’s the serenity of old dolls that’s hard to capture,” he says, showing me an 80-year-old Kalinga Narthana statue — a beautiful Krishna dancing on the head of the tamed snake. Those painters put their hearts into the job,” he says, and, like him, treated the dolls as gods and not just as a business. “Look at the eye,” he shows me the Ayyapan idol. “I’ve used light brown, dark brown and then a white dot. Kann pesudhu,” he says with quiet pride. And given that the entire work is done by hand, he takes a minimum of 20-25 days for, say, a Dasavatharam set. “If it’s to be completed any faster, I have to sit up all night!”

Hard work does not put-off Paramasivan. His day typically starts at 3.30 a.m. After showering, he cycles from his house in R.A. Puram to Ramakrishna Mutt and meditates. He opens his store at 5.20 a.m. and shuts down at 10 p.m. “It takes me two hours to arrange the dolls and get everything ready,” he says.

Charging around Rs. 500 – Rs. 600 for a day’s work, he says customers who value old dolls don’t bargain. “I’m very happy with my work and income; my daughters are all well settled.” As we speak, a man enquires if his father’s 85-year-old idol — Rama sitting on Hanuman’s shoulder — is ready; Paramasivan asks him to come back after a few days. “Before Navarathri, everybody wants their dolls back,” he smiles. “But I return them only when I’m satisfied with the job.”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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