When dolls become Gods

A look at the age-old Golu dolls that are cherished as souvenirs from the past

Published - September 26, 2014 04:40 pm IST - MADURAI:

Golu dolls on display. Photo: S. James

Golu dolls on display. Photo: S. James

About a dozen dolls stand on the first padi of the five-step Golu inside the 120-year old house of Shanthakumari maami on Kakathoppu Street. “Call them Gods,” she says, “they have outlived the potters who made them a century ago and the people who possessed them.” She points to a doll of Lord Krishna. It was gifted to her mother-in-law by her mother. “Look how the eyes of the doll speak,” she notes.

About a foot in size, the doll sports sharp features and a beautifully painted blue body. The yellow of Krishna’s jewels gleam in portions from underneath the dirt accumulated over the century. Not just this, but even the Andal, Shiva, Muruga, Saraswathi and a slew of other dolls are all nearly as old as the Krishna. “They are not just dolls, but a legacy that we treasure. It’s a tradition to pass on Golu dolls from one generation to the next,” says Shanthakumari.

Geetha, a college professor, has few dolls more than 80 years old. One of them is of Lord Muruga with six faces, sitting on a dancing peacock. “This doll is special to me, my athai gave it. It was one among her childhood collection and whenever I see it, I remember her,” says Geetha.

Golu dolls are also tokens of love and loads of sentiments are attached to them. Some are kept as remembrance of a dear one, some are part of the family’s proud possessions, while some are valued and preserved simply for aesthetics.

Banumathi maami of Vishwanathapuram considers Golu dolls as blessings from her paati. “We were four sisters and my paati was overwhelmed by my enthusiasm in Golu. She gave me most of her dolls,” says Banumathi. She has a pair of dolls representing the divine Dhruv star, which she claims to be over 100 years old. “It seems my paati bought them at Srivilliputtur just as a toy for her to play. Later she kept it in Golu.”

For Aravind Sankar, the Golu dolls left behind by his paati are a valuable inheritance. “I discovered a sack full of old clay dolls in the legendary 150-year-old palayam house where my granny lived. She used to organise a grand Golu there,” says Aravind. “One of the dolls is of Lakshmi and Saraswathi sailing in a boat.”

The significance of Golu dolls goes beyond their appearance. Meenakshi Sundaram of Tirunagar explains the importance of the Marapachi bommai, compulsory in any Golu. “Made in teak or rose wood, Marapachi depicts a husband and wife symbolising prosperity and fertility,” he says. Generally, the marapachi is always preserved for generations. “One doesn’t get them easily these days, except in Tirupati and Channapatna,” says Meenakshi Sundaram. Likewise Chettiar-Achi dolls also form an inseparable part of Golu. The Chettiar-Achi pair is invariably a thalai aati bommai , traditionally made in Tanjore. “The doll is considered a must in the wedding trousseau of a daughter,” says Jeyam maami, who elaborates the method of preserving old dolls. “The colour on mud dolls remains intact when kept wrapped in soft cotton clothes or newspapers. The inner sides of the box or almirah should be coated with kerosene before keeping the dolls in them. Neem leaves can also be used to keep termites and insects at bay.”

During Navaratri, colourful Golu dolls flood the markets as people add new ones to their collection. Yet, say many, the charm of old dolls is unmatched. Says Rajamani whose family has been observing Golu for generations, “Those days, the dolls used to be much bigger in size and yet proportionate. Even the facial expressions would be intact and the colours didn’t fade that easily.” He recalls his grandparents buying dolls from Panruti near Tanjore. “The place was famous for its clay and workmanship. The potters of Panruti used to make the dolls around a frame of thin wires. That gave the dolls a perfect shape and build. They were weightless too and women found it easy to lift them and place them on the padis.”

Mahalingam, a third-generation potter from Vilachery says that earlier every single doll was hand-crafted individually. “These days dolls are mass-produced using readymade moulds and hence the features aren’t sharp,” he says.

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