An industry in the ‘dolldrums’

COVID-19 has severely affected doll-making clusters in Tamil Nadu. Changes in government policies and a steady rise in raw material cost have added to their woes.

September 26, 2021 03:13 am | Updated October 17, 2021 02:45 pm IST

Vibrant finish:  A woman giving finishing touches to a kolu doll ahead of the Navarathri festival at Kancheepuram.

Vibrant finish: A woman giving finishing touches to a kolu doll ahead of the Navarathri festival at Kancheepuram.

Every year as September gives way to October and skies turn a gloomy grey with the north-east monsoon waiting to make its wet and windy way into Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Navarathri celebrations come to lend colour to homes. Thousands of traditional artisans who have worked dolls of clay and papier-mâché eagerly await discerning buyers to choose their dolls and add uniqueness to ‘kolu’ at their homes.

Did you know that a traditional ‘kolu’ doll-maker starts his work on Vijayadasami, the 10thday of Navarathri, to get his wares ready for next year’s festival? Such is the quantum of work that goes into the dolls that are spread out on the footpaths of Mylapore and West Mambalam ahead of the season.

Work on next year’s dolls

“We start by moulding a Ganesha idol and begin work on next year’s new dolls on Vijayadasami when new beginnings are made. The first model of the new doll is made and then the mould is prepared. These days, we use stone plaster moulds that is used to make 300 sets. Earlier, we used Plaster of Paris moulds with which we could make only around 100 dolls,” said Padma Shri awardee V.K. Munusamy of Puducherry.

According to him, the earliest moulds were made of clay, brushed with neem oil and dusted with ash. “Some of these moulds have survived for over 110 years at Mayavaram,” added Mr. Munusamy, who has trained hundreds of women in terracotta after the 2004 tsunami to help revive their livelihood.

By mid-January, in the Tamil month of Thai, the first doll sets are ready, and orders arrive from abroad. “Between April and August, we export the dolls, by containers in ships if we have time and air cargo, otherwise. Alongside, we work for the local markets. A positive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in online sales, an advantage for doll-makers with a regular market abroad. Within the country too, these days you can place orders online,” said Munusamy, a terracotta artiste, who can make a Ganesha doll in under a minute and won a UNESCO award in 2005.

Hit by the pandemic

Annually, goods worth ₹5 crore are exported to countries such as the U.S., Australia, Singapore, Canada and Malaysia, directly and indirectly, said Prabakaran, regional director (in-charge), southern region, the office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Ministry of Textiles. “Around 800-900 artisans and their families are involved in the work in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry,” he said.

However, the pandemic has severely hit the business in the doll-making clusters in Chennai, Kancheepuram, Madurai, Thanjavur, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Panruti, Nagercoil and Salem. For traditional artisans in Chennai and Kancheepuram, as in other places, the pandemic was the proverbial last straw. A series of changes in government policies like the introduction of the GST and a steady rise in raw material cost have added to their problems.

M. Jayapal’s grandfather made clay utensils and his father graduated to making clay toys. He makes papier-mâché dolls, carving out a niche customer base. In normal years, wealthy clients would queue up to place orders. But this year, “there have been no orders so far. Only 20% of my valued customers have called. Not many have come in person. I have not made a single doll during the pandemic,” he said. Idols were not made for Vinayaka Chathurthi either. “In 2019, we were hit when the government introduced 12% GST. Though it was reduced to 5% the next year, we had to pay a certain commission to the Khadi Board but sales were not as high,” he said.

Demonetisation and GST

Demonetisation hit them first but the GST worsened their plight. “The relaxation of the GST for annual incomes of up to ₹20 lakh did not benefit us since doll manufacturers don’t make so much. Though people buy dolls only during the 40 days from Gokulashtami to Navarathri, we are asked to show monthly sale accounts. During a good year, we would sell for ₹6 lakh-₹7 lakh and make a profit of 20%-25%,” said T.S. Vijayakumar, whose family moved from Puducherry to Chennai over 110 years ago.

His grandfather earned fame for his set for the film Avvaiyar . Then 25 years ago, when the Pollution Control Board denied permission for opening kilns in the city “we stopped making clay dolls and moved to papier-mâché. In Kosapet, where there used to be 100 doll manufacturers, there are just four or five now,” said the artisan, whose fibreglass doll-making business, too, has been hit this year by the rising cost of raw materials such as resin.

His entire family, including artisan Jagadeeswaran from Saidapet, contracted COVID-19, forcing them to suspend work. “We have survived only on rice from the fair price shop and government dole. As I cannot afford to pay them, my workers have returned home. Now my granddaughters help me. We are working on last year’s dolls only,” said an emotional Mr. Jagadeeswaran.

Aminjikarai-based artisan V. Siva learnt the art of making papier-mâché dolls from his father. He sells only 10 pieces now instead of the usual 100 pieces earlier. The government’s decision to introduce newer sales outlets has hit artisans, he said. While showrooms registered sales over ₹1 crore, customer footfalls have dropped by more than two-thirds.

More than 50 doll-maker families in Kancheepuram are in distress. “Many of us are unable to repay loans taken last year. The closure of temples for Krishna Jayanthi and Vinayaka Chathurthi came as a blow to those who bought large-sized idols from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh to sell in Chennai. Last year, many doll-makers lost stocks stored in warehouses because of heavy rain and flooding. We need some kind of assistance from the government,” said Baskar, whose brothers also are doll-makers and learnt the craft from their father. Sankar, another doll-maker, said power should be supplied at domestic tariff since painting of dolls was not done daily.

Doll-makers at Villianur in Puducherry and Vandipalayam and Panruti in Cuddalore district are worried about clearing unsold stocks from the previous year. With the restrictions on account of the pandemic, they don’t think the coming Navrathri would be a joyous occasion. Buyers are hesitant, said national awardee A. Sekar. “Despite the hardship due to the pandemic, doll-makers here have been trying to continue, maintaining all precautions and hoping business will revive soon. We have to pay wages to employees who have been working round the clock. Most doll-makers have no other source of income and the unsold stocks have had a cascading effect on our bank loans,” he said.

Doll-makers at Vandipalayam are trying to boost sales through social media platforms. S. Karthikeyan, a third-generation toy-maker, said, “Those purchasing the dolls from far-off places would pay an advance amount and settle the full amount later. This was the practice for the last few years. But this year, even this is not possible as the demand has fallen steeply. As a result, we have been calling up regular customers, convincing them to make at least small purchases to help the artisans get back on track.”

Navi Suresh, a resident of Toronto, Canada, said Navarathri celebrations span a fortnight in her locality. “Many neighbours and friends would come in to see the dolls. We also visit others. We buy dolls online and also from local shops. We display dolls bought during visits to India,” she said.

Apart from earthen and papier-mâché idols, S. Balamurugan, a fourth-generation doll-maker and terracotta potter, makes toys for children. ‘Soppu saaman’, the toys for children to play with, are often part of ‘kolu’. This set has around 11 clay items, like pots, pans, spoons and kitchen implements. With parents buying ‘soppu saaman’ to keep their children engaged after their online classes, the demand for these toys has increased since the lockdown was announced.”

Hope is not lost

However, all is not lost for the artisans of Vilacheri in Madurai and Thanjavur who are working late at night to reach at least some dolls to the markets. Against the gloomy overcast sky and deserted streets at Vilacheri, a southern suburb, the small room in S. Muthusamy’s two-storey house on Velar Street is cramped with magnificently colourful dolls being readied for Navarathri. A happy old song of MGR’s, Kann Pona Pokkile , plays in the background as half-a-dozen women engage in gentle banter.

The pandemic has set their festive sales back. But hope drives them. “Our new dolls are ready and we have repainted last year’s left-over stock,” said M. Priyadarshini, 20, a third-generation artisan, painting the dolls that Vilacheri is famous for. Vilacheri is home to 180-odd families that have carried on the legacy of doll-making for nearly six decades.

Pottery had been her family’s business for eight generations, said M. Malathi. “Our forefathers made mann paanai (clay pots) or worked on temple gopuram,” she said. Her husband Muthusamy said the training is passed down generations. Vilacheri artwork is cherished for bright colours, glaze and aesthetics. “Our mastery of the divine eyes and facial expressions of the idols set us apart,” pointed out M. Ramalingam, whose family is among the first five in the village to switch to doll-making in the early 1960s.

The story goes that some time in the late 1950s, famous clay artisans Kannan and Thangavel Pathar came on work to Chithira Kala Studio, Madurai’s first cinema studio. Natarajan Velar from Vilacheri upgraded his skills and also taught the villagers. By mid-1960s, the first doll-making units came up. Though business is not exactly booming for the artisans, the fame of their dolls has not diminished. “There is a sentiment attached to our ‘kolu’ dolls,” asserted S. Meena, an artisan for 30 years. “We cater to every fancy demand of our customers,” said Mahalingam. “NRIs order customised dolls in papier-mâché as they are easy to transport.”

Customer M. Saravana from Karaikudi has developed a bond with the Vilacheri artisans, who also ensure careful packaging and timely delivery. Sets depicting Dasavatharam and Ashtalakshmi are popular arrangements across households. Big dolls of deities such as Siva, Parvathi, and Murugan are all-time favourites. This year, Nava Narasimha is more in demand, said N. Murugesan.

Competition from plastics

Competition from plastic and battery-operated playthings have hit Thanjavur’s doll industry from the mid-2000s, limiting the sale of traditional toys to the festive season and regional tourism. The lockdown has only added to the woes of the families engaged in doll-making. Brought to Thanjavur by Maratha ruler Raja Serfoji in the early 19th century, the art of making these dolls is on the verge of becoming a footnote in India’s rich folk handicraft history. S. Bhoopathy, a fifth-generation craftsman, has been making uruttai and thalai-atti dolls at Punainallur Mariamman Kovil, 6 km from Thanjavur, for 45 years. “From the 40-odd families that were once making a living here, only two or three are left in the business,” he said. “In a normal Navarathri season, we can easily turn out 10,000 clay dolls of 11-12 varieties. With the ban on travel and tourism, we have nobody to sell our dolls to.”

The Thanjavur dolls, which earned a place in the Geographical Indications Registry in 2009, reflect a unique combination of modern aesthetics and ingenious engineering — lightweight body made of tapioca flour, papier-mâché and plaster of Paris — cooked and kneaded to the consistency of roti dough. Each toy is made in halves by pressing the rolled-out ‘doll dough’ into cement-based moulds, with liberal dusting of chalk powder. The dried halves are reinforced with sheets of paper at the back and glued together with home-cooked adhesive that uses tapioca flour as a base.

The dancer dolls have a heavier pedestal-shaped feet section. The uruttai toys, on the other hand, use a bowl-shaped clay base (shaped using moulds), which ensures that the doll remains upright.

Artisans want a system to access an advance to buy raw materials. “Farmers get subsidies on agricultural inputs. We, too, must be given raw materials at subsidised rates. The Union government must exempt ‘kolu’ dolls from the GST. More steps are needed to market our products. There are only two haats (open-air market) in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry. We urge the Tamil Nadu government to provide homes to artisans with work spaces in the front yard,” said Mr. Baskar.

Mr. Prabakaran of the office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts said the Centre, which had contributed ₹5.36 crore towards the construction of haats in Mamallapuram and Kanniyakumari, had provided tool-kits worth ₹5 lakh this year alone to the State’s artisans. “We do have schemes that artisans can seek. The State government can approach us for special projects. Shortly, we will have special projects at Kalahasti and Puducherry.”

A darbar and colour

How did the festival come to be?

  • Yes, the festival is indeed a Darbar, where the king gave audience to his subjects. “Only on a smaller scale. People wanted to enjoy the grandeur and pomp at their homes and scaled down the festival to suit their needs. The idols of gods and goddesses took the place of kings. The festival, which is a form of Shaktha worship (Shakthi), is also aimed at providing importance to women in the household, explained G. Vijayavenugopal, senior research fellow, French School of Asian Studies, Puducherry.

Raja Ravi Varma’s influence on dolls

  • Apart from the epics Ramayana and Mahabhratha, films, cartoons and real life have influenced doll-making. Historian V. Sriram explains that an Alli Arjuna set, a couple in very western royal costume, was a throwback to the Tamil theatre of the 1920s when K.B. Sundarambal and S.G. Kittappa had played these characters. In the 1940s came the dancing doll, tilting her head and holding her skirt like a fan. This was modelled on Vyjayanthimala in AVM’s Vazhkai , in the song Nandagopalanodu naan aaduvene , sung by M.L. Vasanthakumari. But artiste Raja Ravi Varma, perhaps, had the greatest influence on the dolls. A prized possession at many homes is a set of six scenes from the Ramayana, all directly copied from Ravi Varma. These comprise the breaking of the bow, the crossing of the Ganga, the killing of Jatayu, Sita in Ashoka Vana, the crossing of the ocean and the Pattabishekam. Similarly, the iconic Lakshmi and Saraswathi, as depicted by the painter, became the standard for all clay replicas.

How to buy dolls?

  • Nonagenarian T.S. Ramakrishnan, who has marketed dolls for over 50 years, says ‘Kolu’ is usually arranged in an odd number of steps. A rule that a new doll is added to the collection every year helps artisans and gives homes an opportunity to show off the new addition. “While buying a doll, look at the face, the eyes and features like jewellery. The must-have dolls include the Ramar-Sita set; Marapachi dolls made of red sanders and manufactured at Chennapatna; Lakshmi-Saraswati; Murugan-Ganesha; wedding set; Chettiyar and his wife; ‘soppu saaman’; and vegetables and fruits.

( With inputs from R. Sujatha in Chennai; Soma Basu in Madurai; Nahla Nainar in Tiruchi; and S. Prasad in Puducherry )

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