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Dolls tell stories of then and now

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COLOURFUL: Anupama Hoskere with her dolls at Dhaatu in Banashankari II Stage in Bangalore on Tuesday.
COLOURFUL: Anupama Hoskere with her dolls at Dhaatu in Banashankari II Stage in Bangalore on Tuesday.

Special Correspondent

Bangalore: Some festivals are all about rituals with clearly laid down norms. Others lend themselves to contemporary interpretations. That is how this year’s Ganesha in some pandals was surrounded by dolls wearing masks, reflecting the A(H1N1) scare.

We are now in the middle of yet another festival that is influenced as much by modern themes as it is by traditional faith. The custom of arranging dolls during Dasara (which gives it the name Gombe Habba) gets updated every year in most households.

While the black wooden pattada gombes of the king and the queen remain constant, the dolls around them keep changing. No wonder then that doll shops that crop up before Dasara sell cricket-playing dolls as well as traditional clay dolls.

Kinhala to Europe

Anupama Hoskere, a puppeteer and doll-maker, has accumulated about 5,000 dolls over the years, which are an eclectic combination of Indian and Western make. While Dhaatu, the non-profit organisation founded by her and husband Vidyashankar, is active through the year, it is during Dasara that the entire collection is on display. They also hold puppet shows every day through Navaratri.

Ms. Hoskere’s collection has four-foot Gowri dolls and traditional dolls made at Kinhala rubbing shoulders with dainty porcelain dolls from Europe and Africa. This year’s display at Banashankari II Stage has a variety of traditional themes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. As elaborate are the sets of Disney parade, circus, cricket league and a totem poll made with stuffed toys.

Seventy-year-old Pankajam Ramu, a resident of HSR Layout, is also an avid maker of dolls who picks her themes every year from something she reads in a newspaper or her favourite book. This year she has on display “Malgudi Railway Station”, complete with a tea stall selling chai and vadas.

“I had read R.K. Narayan’s books and also watched the serial,” smiles Ms. Ramu. She has put up a set of airport, scenes from rural India and classical dances of India.

While the elaborate set of the airport was a gift from her daughter-in-law’s father who lives in Chennai, most dolls in the collection are handmade by Ms. Ramu. “I keep collecting material through the year for my dolls,” she says.

Myth and history

One of the legends on how Dasara came to be “gombe habba” is related to the slaying of Mahishasura by Goddess Chamundeswari.

It is said that the Goddess needed tremendous powers to eliminate Mahishasura, and so all other gods and goddesses transferred their power to her and stood still as dolls.

Historians trace the tradition to Vijayanagar times when ordinary folk imitated the grand pageantry of the palaces in their own humble homes in the form of dolls. The tradition was later nurtured during the Wadiyars.

History and mythology apart, it is an art and a living tradition for the likes of Ms. Hoskere and Ms. Ramu.

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