Dolls with a difference

Vinita Sidhartha

Dolls with a difference

Dolls have been around almost as long as people. They have been playthings and festival figures made of clay, wood, stone and even cloth. In India, the festival of Dasara is a festival of dolls. People arrange dolls of gods and goddesses along with lamps.

Historians believe that dolls were made even in pre-historic times. However, as they were made from wood, cloth or fur they have disintegrated and no signs of them have been found.

The earliest doll to be found was from Babylon and was made of alabaster (a kind of clay) and had movable hands. Dolls that are 4000 or 5000 years old have been found in Egyptian graves. These were made of wood, and were brightly painted. They even had hair made of strings of clay or wooden beads. In India, the oldest dolls date back to 5,000 years ago, from the sites of the Indus valley civilisation. Dolls are an important part of Indian culture and festivals. Each region is known for its typical doll. Assam and West Bengal make dolls out of pith. Pith is the soft stem of a plant growing wild in marshy and waterlogged areas.

Varanasi, Lucknow, Mathura and Vrindavan are known for their brightly painted wooden dolls and toys, Rajasthan for dolls of unbaked clay. In some places dolls are even made of a kind of grass called sikki. Dolls are also made from a mixture of cow dung, sawdust and clay and coated with bright paints.

Woodcarving is a traditional craft in Orissa, especially Puri. There is an interesting history to this.

Long ago, there was a king who dreamt that god had asked him to come to a temple guarded by a tribal chief in the jungles of Orissa. He decided to follow the dream but there was no idol in the temple.

This upset the king who decided to do a pooja. At the time, he heard a voice asking him to look for a particular piece of wood. There was just such a log floating nearby. At that very moment, a man came by and offered to carve the wood. He however, laid the condition that he was to work undisturbed for eight days without food, drink or sleep. The king agreed, and the carpenter shut himself up with the log of wood. Five days passed, and the king began to worry.

He ordered the door open and found to his amazement no one there but four half-finished idols. The missing carpenter was believed to be god. These idols were very large, with square faces, protruding noses, straight bodies and no hands or feet. Ever since then, the art of wood carving and wooden dolls has been popular in Orissa.

In Kondapalli in Andhra Pradesh, people make dolls and toys out of a lightwood that is found in the area.

The wood is first heated slowly to draw out all the moisture. Every single unit is separately carved and joined to the body with an adhesive paste of tamarind seeds, then coated with lime glue. Painting is done with brushes made of goat's hair.

Nirmal, another village in Andhra Pradesh, is yet another toy making centre. The story goes that ancient craftsmen manufactured a material that shone like gold and lasted just as long. Even now, the predominant colour in Nirmal toys is gold. The interesting thing is how the gold colouring is made. Juices of two kinds of plants are boiled in linseed oil and the brilliant gold colour is produced. Generally, the base colour is black or natural mud.

With this wide variety of dolls available in India, it is very interesting to have a big collection. In South India there is no better way to collect dolls than to add to the collection for the Dasara festival called Bommai Kolu or a display of dolls. The first dolls are given to a girl from her parents during her marriage and are called Marapachi Bommai. These are made from a special wood called Marapachi.

In those days people got married very young, so these dolls were meant for the girl to play with in her new home. From then on the girl was supposed to add at least one doll to her collection every year.

But such customs are not prevalent just in India. In South Africa, every girl is given another doll to keep for her first child. When the child is born, she is given a doll to keep for her second child. In Syria, girls who want to get married hang a doll at their window. In Japan, boys too have a doll festival with warriors and other such dolls

So the next time you sit down to play with your Barbies and your G.I. Joes, remember dolls have been played with for thousands of years.

Recommended for you