Life & Style

Girl power in Kodai: feminist icons turn into ragdolls in writer Smriti Lamech’s initiative

The Kalpana Chawla doll  

In early 2020, the only tailor Smriti Lamech could find near her cottage in Kodaikanal was a grocer who also had a sewing machine in one corner of his shop. She wanted to convert some unused fabric into cushion covers for the house she had temporarily moved into, to be closer to her teenagers in boarding school.

Then Lamech, 41, chanced upon Prowess, a women’s self-help group (SHG) with 16 seamstresses and gave them her order. By the time she returned to collect it a couple of months later, the SHG was reopening after the nation-wide lockdown. The women mentioned how they’d barely received any new orders since before the pandemic struck.

The Frida Kahlo doll

The Frida Kahlo doll  

On their website’s homepage, Prowess introduces their team with a photograph of the women in shiny pattu saris who ‘produce a wide array of toys, puppets, furnishings and accessories, most of which are made with 100% cotton or silk fabrics’. That’s when it struck Lamech. This was as good an opportunity as any to do one of the things she had been meaning to try out — rag dolls, but of feminist icons. Her first set (out now) includes Indian-origin astronaut Kalpana Chawla, American poet and activist Maya Angelou, Indian educationist and social reformer Savitribai Phule, and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

Nifty with fabric

Of the memories she has of her childhood with an eclectic, fabric-collecting mother, Lamech has one that stands out. The family was travelling by road from Delhi to then-Madras, when they spotted a group of Lambani women on the highway. They pulled over and her mother went to speak to them. A few minutes later, the Lambanis were pulling out spare cholis (blouses) and other embroidered materials from their bags, as her mother took out cotton kurtas from her suitcase. They swapped the clothes and, a few moments later, cash was exchanged for a few pieces of their iconic silver jewellery.

Her mother also ran one of the only boutiques in the 1990s in Allahabad, where they were based. So Lamech has always had an eye for spotting fabric of aesthetic value. (Though a journalist by training, she has been making outfits for her children, upcycled décor for her house in Gurugram, and knick knacks for friends.)

A snapshot of the makers

A snapshot of the makers  

Using this experience, and her working knowledge of Tamil, she began spending time with the women at Prowess in early May to come up with a set of four long-limbed rag dolls, under the initiative The Smritsonian. They have no detailed faces — no eyes or nose — but each carries one distinguishing feature of these women. Chawla comes in her NASA-orange spacesuit with a helmet and boots by a different crochet artist known to Lamech; Angelou has thick dark locks of hair and a removable turban; Phule has her trademark horizontal bindi; and for Kahlo, it is her unibrow.

Feminism for children

Owing to Tamil Nadu’s state-wide ban on plastic, the dolls come snuggled in bags crafted with waste fabric, along with a letter addressed to the receiver, introducing themselves in first person. “I always wanted feminist dolls for my daughter and son, not battery or plastic dolls,” says Lamech over a call from Kodaikanal, where she remains during the pandemic. “I did buy them a lot of Channapatna toys when they were growing up, but I also want my child to recognise a Kalpana Chawla or a Frida Kahlo at this age. My generation didn’t hear about them till we were in our teens — things are, of course, different now with the Internet — but these are women who deserved to be introduced to our lives much earlier,” she adds.

Smriti Lamech

Smriti Lamech   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The label — whose name is courtesy a friend’s pun on the Smithsonian and Lamech’s penchant for collecting vintage fabric, jewellery, and furniture — also makes buntings with slogans like ‘Pride’, ‘Resist’, and ‘Hok Kolorob’, and face masks using surplus fabric, envisioned as a more fast-moving item given the times.

“People are cautious about politics while doing business... even declaring yourself a feminist for fear of offending somebody,” says Lamech. “But I am not looking at a grand business. Even if I sell to four people, I’m happy with it.”

The collection featuring masks, buntings and dolls is priced between ₹300 and ₹1,800. To order, call 9873344651 or email thesmritsonian@gmail.com

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 3:27:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/feminist-icons-turn-into-ragdolls-in-writer-smriti-lamechs-initiative/article32632460.ece

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