Nature, mythology, folklore… these doll-makers use themes to entice the buyers.

Dasara is here and plans for the colourful array of dolls are taking shape in homes where Navaratri is a tradition. For the potters making the dolls, it is a matter of both economics and passion, with the entire family pitching in. Creative and innovative, they come out with new items every year.

“A 2.5-ft high ‘Vasthu Grihalakshmi’ is one of my new pieces this year,” says Basker, of Kanchipuram. It is a papier-mâché doll and has been painted with vegetable colours and plastic emulsion. “This imposing piece can be kept on the first step of the kolu with small plantain trees on either side. It is said to usher in prosperity,” he adds.

Sekar of Villianur, Pondicherry, has introduced sets such as Balaji with Sridevi and Bhoodevi, the Tirupati Brahmotsavam, animals building houses and so on. Especially imposing is Mannargudi Rajagopalaswamy. Sets based on themes always have takers, the artisans say.

Nearly 300 units (8-10 people in each) are involved in doll-making in Puducherry. They are scattered in Villianur, Kosapalayam, Moolakulam, Arumathapuram and Navakulam. Experienced people such as Sekar and V.K. Munusamy, national award winner in handicrafts, are the trainers.

“It does bring in good revenue as it has a good market,” says Sekar, who has trained more than 1,000 people. He helps several families market and display their products at showrooms including Khadi Crafts, Poompuhar and Kuralagam in Chennai, and other handicraft centres in various parts of the country.

Raja Chetty, president of Handicrafts Artisans Welfare Association, says, “We formed this Association in 1992 and trade flourished for 15 years but there has been a lull after that. In the last three years we have not received any encouragement from the Government.” Sekar agrees. “The manufacturing costs have risen and we hardly earn a profit of Rs. 20-25 a set. Also there is shortage of manpower as youngsters are more inclined to higher studies and jobs that fetch a steady income.”

All in the family

Educated or not, all family members are involved in this business which begins right on Vijayadasami every year. “We go about designing, creating and painting the whole year, with rain alone intervening, says S. Mohan of Moolakulam, Pondicherry. “The work definitely is labour-intensive,” agree Sekar and Munusamy., “Kolu dolls from Pondicherry are something special,” says Sekar. The clay obtained from the banks of the Sankarabarani river is fine and strong enough to make even big dolls.”

It is kneaded with hands and feet to make it supple and then cast into plaster of paris moulds. Then they are sun-dried and fired in a kiln. Once ready, these pieces are brightly painted. With an increasing awareness of pollution, there is objection to firing the dolls in kilns. And procuring clay from river side is proving difficult. They feel that the Government should step in and provide the artisans with a common facility to work and store the products.

Bakser’s take is a little different. “I market the creations of 50-60 families in Kanchipuram and there is enough manpower. Once you identify the market, the business is really good,” he says. He ships many of the dolls to Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius and Canada. He points out that his goods have been in great demand for the past 15 years. He has trained youngsters from 40 families, handicapped destitute women. “Some may be good in making moulds, some in painting and some in carving the idols. Let us make use of all available talent instead of talking about the drawbacks of the trade,” he philosophises.

Karthi of Cuddalore made his dolls in Villianur this year with the stories of Jesus, Villianur matha as the focus. “Most of my goods are sold from my home at Cuddalore and I have a steady stream of buyers,” says the upbeat artisan.