Vilachery dolls: a colourful tradition lives on in Madurai

The history of doll-making at Vilachery can be traced to 1965 when Sadasiva Velar and Suran Velar, along with Thangaraman Velar, laid the foundation. They were artisans from Velar families making terracotta horses offered by people to Ayyanar temples 

September 30, 2022 12:37 am | Updated 09:15 pm IST

 A riot of colour and design: At Vilachery, one can find clay toys ranging from as low as ₹10 for a two-inch vegetable figurine to the 10-foot Vinayagar idols priced at ₹50,000.

 A riot of colour and design: At Vilachery, one can find clay toys ranging from as low as ₹10 for a two-inch vegetable figurine to the 10-foot Vinayagar idols priced at ₹50,000. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy 

As one walks through the narrow streets of Vilachery in Madurai, members of a family can be spotted perfecting terracotta idols, painting them to life and arranging an army of ‘kolu’ dolls. Most artisans are working with old songs belted out by a mobile phone and induction stoves with a vessel that would have been full of tea minutes ago. , to keep them going through the day’s work.

Customers in chunks can be seen vying for the best ‘kolu bommais’ for Navaratri. Among them, a group of women stood alone as they had a specific list of dolls: five houses, seven ‘Thavazhum Kannan’ figurines and so on. Usha Suman, one of the shoppers, said people of Sankaralingapuram near Virudhunagar offered dolls to the ‘Oor kolu’, a tradition at the Ramalinga Sowdeswari Amman temple. “Parents who want to marry off their wards would buy a ‘Radha Krishna set’. This time, we came in early to buy the best,” she said.

Loyal customers 

Most artisans have loyal customers. “Some even come back for repainting dolls, which they say were passed on from their mothers and grandmothers — a testimony that our dolls are made to last,” said M. Ramalingam, 68, who has been at it for more than half his life. One can find clay toys ranging from as low as ₹10 for a two-inch vegetable figurine with fine details to the 10-foot Vinayagar idols priced at ₹50,000. For any kolu, three sets — Dasavatharam, Ashtalakshmi, a wedding set along with the idols of Goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswathi and Durga — are a must, said R. Selvi, a seller.

While many artisans stuck to making regular doll sets this year, many displayed new pieces such as sets of Vishwakarma puja, ‘Ramar Paalam,’ and Surya Ratham drawn by seven horses.

Mr. Ramalingam traced the history of doll-making at Vilachery to 1965 when Sadasiva Velar and Suran Velar, along with Thangaraman Velar, laid the foundation. The three were traditional artisans from families of Velars (members of the potter community) engaged in making terracotta horses which were offered by people to Ayyanar temples on the periphery of villages as part of ‘puravi eduppu’ (horse procession).

Over the years, they made smaller dolls, which gained popularity. “As a child, I learnt the craft during the summer holidays with my friends. What was hardly a business that involved 12 families has now grown to be the identity and livelihood of 150 families,” he said. The dolls from here stand out as the artisans design their own moulds.

T. Vijayakumar, son of one of the forerunners, said about 50 families were engaged in crafting figurines to display the Nativity scene, gaining buyers around Christmas. In contrast to lavishly coloured dolls, a humble shed sheltered terracotta horses that were left to dry. N. Muthukumar, one among the few families still making puravi, said the business peaked during the Tamil months of Puratasi, Panguni and Vaikasi when temple festivals are celebrated.

Mr. Muthukumar, who hand-sculpted horses for 20 years, said procuring elephant dung that acts as fibre in binding the life-size structures is becoming a struggle. Dolls are made throughout the year, in stages, said Prasanna Venkatesh, an artisan. Casting of dolls is predominantly done between January and March. Making the most of the summer heat, basic layers of paint are coated until July. Thereafter finishing touches are given as sales begin in August-September.About 100 clay dolls would be crafted in a day and readied in a kiln. Most artisans make dolls measuring up to 1.5 feet in clay, while dolls more than 2 feet are made of Papier-mâché for its light-weight, especially for exports.

The sales pick up with Krishna Jayanthi and Vinayaga Chathurthi and followed by Navarathri. The dolls from here reach the shelves of Khadi Kraft and Poompuhar showrooms across the State. They also cross the seas to decorate ‘kolu’ stands in the U.S., Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.

Problem of middlemen

C. Prabhu, a retail seller of clay items at Devakottai, was visiting Vilachery for the first time since his middlemen had kept him in the dark about their “source” of dolls for long. “This is one of the problems we want to eliminate through the formation of a Vilachery Toy Cluster,” said K.R. Gnanasambandan, adviser of the proposed cluster, for which a ₹4-crore grant was approved recently under the State’s Micro Cluster Development Scheme. This will help to adopt 50% of the technology required to modernise the predominantly manual production while preserving its traditionalism, he said.

“Mechanising production, from procuring raw materials such as soil extracted from Vilachery kanmoi and other surrounding ones with cranes to transporting it by other means than bullock carts and from constructing a common facility centre to store the raw materials to installing electrical kilns in place of traditional kilns that cause pollution with the use of hay and cow dung cakes, will increase the daily production 10 times,” he said. The cluster project will go on floors by next month.

Mr. Gnanasambandan hoped modernisation would be a game changer for the business which is seasonal and festival-based. “With computer-assisted designing, a wider scope can be created to make toys and have stand-alone showrooms in major cities by eliminating middlemen. We want to create something similar to the Koppal Toy Cluster in Karnataka...” and make Madurai the hotspot for toy production down south.”

The cluster, which comprises 25 members, will help absorb youngsters who left the family line of business and improve overall livelihood, said its chairperson M. Sundar.

A Geographic Indication tag for the dolls is also on the anvil.

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