Lalithasai & K. Sarumathi

It was a quiet Sunday morning. Warm rays of the sun and a pleasant breeze greeted the Downtown team at Pondicherry. After several queries we proceeded towards Villianur village, which lies on the roadto Cuddalore. We travelled on neat cement roads, taking in the tiled houses with open courtyards and neat little thatched homes, a common sight there.

In most of the streets, the front porch of some houses had a huge number of clay Ganesa (broken and new) idols. We proceeded towards a tiled house where we were welcomed by 12-year-old Anu, who was busy shaping clay lamps using a small machine. As we crossed the dingy hall into the courtyard, we were awestruck by what greeted us. Women, both young and middle-aged, were busy shaping dolls. Wielding tiny instruments dextrously, they shaped birds, animals, gods and goddess. The clay, which was supple in their hands, quickly turned into ornaments, celestial vehicles and embellishments. “We have been employed here for more than a decade. With a year-long training from a government institute and guidance from Mr. Munnusamy, (09345411197) who runs the unit, we have become well versed in the art. We enjoy working here (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) as it give us the comfort of a home,” said Sudha, a worker in the unit.

“While we eke out a living here, we are also able to keep company with our children. This work helps us to balance work and family life,” said Chithra, another worker.

With no age limit for joining the occupation and a monthly salary of Rs. 5,000, the unit has proved to be a good employment opportunity for the women of the village.

A huge array of dolls, with some being painted, some sun dried, some being packed, welcomed us at the unit of Kaatru Fine Art Works run by Karthik (092821 82838). Sivakumar, the supervising artisan of the unit, explained the nuances of the art. “Educated or not, employed or unemployed, the entire family of an artisan is involved in this labour-intensive work. We go about designing, creating and painting round the year, except during Monsoon,” he said.

Sivakumar has a degree in automobile technology. Though his work keeps him away from home most of the year, he chips in during the season. Talking about the growth in the trade, he said: “We have seen an increase in demand over the years, with people wanting new and unique dolls. This keeps us on our toes and the unit runs throughout the year without a break.”

Doll-making is an art passed down from one generation to another and it is mind boggling to see how many people are involved behind creating one tiny figurine. The Kolu dolls emerging from village in and around Pondicherry are something special. Right from collecting the clay to shaping them into dolls, from intricate designing to painting and finishing, the painstaking process involves meticulous preparation. The fine and strong clay out of which these dolls are made is obtained from the banks of the Sankarabarani River. The artisans say the clay is so flexible that they are able to create huge dolls out of them. Though machines are now available, many units still follow the old fashioned way of kneading clay with hands and feet to make it supple. The process takes two to three hours. The kneaded clay is then cast into plaster-of-paris moulds, which gives an outline of the doll. The hands and legs of the figurines are separately created and attached. Tinkering is done on these rough dolls and then given a final touch. Pencil-like sharp tools are used for making eyes and intricate designs; hollow structures for creating cylindrical shapes, for instance legs and hands, and flat wooden tool for finishing and for making the surface smooth. Later, the dolls are sun-dried and baked in the kiln. Once ready, they are brightly painted. The dolls are then packaged and ready for despatch.

The second of the three part series focuses on craftsmanship.

More In: DOWN TOWN | FEATURES