Materials as diverse as wood, cotton, wool, poplin, bread and tamarind turn into characters as varied as dancers, laughing Buddha, Cinderella, brides and others. Welcome to the world of hand-made dolls that still seem to have a place today where imported toys rule. With navarathri around the corner, three women in the city talk about their passion for this craft

The power of accessories

A Mohiniyattam dancer glittering in ornaments, a Kathak dancer in all her grace, a Manipuri dancer in a perfect costume, Meerabai with a floral hairdo and many others happily jostle for space in Saraswathi Subrahmanyan's living room. And, why not? These hand-made dolls have been the octogenarian's creations over the last 30 years.

Stitching a floral do on the Mohiniyattam doll's hair, Saraswathi, resident of RA Puram, says: “I was deeply interested in art as a child. When we were in Delhi, I got introduced to a woman who knew the Japanese way of making dolls, which I was longing to learn. This craft kept me occupied when my family was busy with work and school.”

Besides brides and dancers of India, Saraswathi's dolls are an assortment of European florists, rural women, fisherfolk, and Lord Krishna. She has held exhibitions in Delhi, and has been conducting classes in Chennai for the last few years. “Since I had a few commitments, I could not convert this passion into a business. But, it gave me immense pleasure whenever someone approached me to learn this art. This way, the art will never die.”

What makes her dolls — mounted on a wooden base, stand apart is that they are hand-done and very light. “The doll is stuffed with wood wool or cotton. It is then covered with cotton cloth or poplin, over which the dress is stitched. It's very important that well-draped dolls are adorned beautifully with appropriate accessories,” she says.

Variety, the key

“When you have the talent, why waste it?” says septuagenarian Suguna Rangaswami. She's said to be one of the first ones to have introduced fur toys in the city, along with her friend in the early 1980s. “I read about doll making in a magazine, found it interesting, and attempted to make a fur toy on my own. The first toy came out so well that my family and friends advised me to make more. From then on, there's been no looking back,” recalls Suguna.

She has held exhibitions of her fur toy collection. Though she started off with fur toys, she made dolls with felt or cotton cloth with fine sand, beans or cotton stuffing. Displaying her colourful reversible Cinderella doll, she says: “Nowadays, cotton or felt cloth covering is preferred to fur, for the fur available now is artificial and a few children are allergic to it.”

Suguna supplies her dolls to craft boutiques in the city and Bangalore. “This craft keeps me busy, and I enjoy doing it. I am the happiest when the finished doll lives up to my satisfaction.”

Creativity unlimited

You name the material, and she has the method to make a doll out of it. “All one needs is creativity and sky is the limit,” says Latha Mani Rajkumar, a CIT colony resident. “We can make dolls out of bread, tamarind and soap too. They are long lasting and are quite light in weight.” She has a few models of rural women, laughing Buddha and a colourful fish made of thermocol and white cement, making them light.

Latha who runs a culinary, arts and craft school says: “Many come to learn this craft, and depending on the individual, it may take about 20 days to finish a doll. We also guide them in designing themes along with the dolls for kolu.”

And, traditional ones are more popular than fur toys during the festive season, she says. “We always get orders for Thanjavur dolls during navarathri. We conduct classes for those who are interested,” says Latha.

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