India’s Traditional Dolls

By M J Raju

While the modern child amuses itself with battery operated flashy cars and chic Barbie dolls, India’s traditional dolls which are redolent with the fragrance of mud and grass, out of which they are often fashioned, are getting sidelined.

Together with the magical colours of nature, the richness of mythology and the joy of festivals, these time-honoured dolls of yore, contain ancient memories and there is a great need to revive and keep alive our toy traditions. These dolls open a whole world of movement, colour perception and joy for the whole nation.

Most of ancient India’s dolls were made in eco-friendly and bio-degradable materials like mud/wood/ waste cotton clothes. The main varieties are as listed below.Clay: Clay dolls are made all over the country, as playthings, votive offerings for worship, and in the case of Ganesha idols, for immersion. Each region possesses its distinct clay craft tradition. While Bihari toymakers make clay dancing figures faintly reminiscent of Mauryan pottery, the speciality of Lucknow is a series of colourful musicians and brides of India. In Bihar there is a charming tradition of giving every bride a lapful of clay dolls. Tamil Nadu’s Panrutti (name of the particular village) clay dolls moulded by hand are colourful and folksy, depicting rural scenes, animals, birds, gods and goddesses and the ever popular Chettiar couple. Very popular as children’s play dolls, Panrutti dolls form an essential part of the Dusserah ‘Kolu festival’. Assam’s clay dolls too form part of the puja and ritual tradition, particularly the mother goddess, done in the abstract style. Charming palanquins, cooking vessels, animal heads on wheels, the ingenious man on a cycle with moving wheels, form part of Assam’s abstract style clay toy tradition with its distinct tribal art overtones.But the piece de resistance of India’s clay dolls are made by the master craftsmen of Krishnagar in West Bengal. Very realistic, the exquisitely hand moulded figures of god and goddess and human beings capture every nuance of facial feature and expression and these famous dolls are today a collector’s item, alas, and are becoming increasingly rare as the second and the third generation toymakers drift to other professions giving them better remunerations.

Wood - The most prolific and variegated of Indian traditional dolls are made out of wood – carved, sculpted, lacquered and painted. Most famous of lacquered dolls are made at Etikopakka in Andhra Pradesh and Chennapatna in Karnataka, a mind – boggling repertoire which includes birds, animals, snakes, rattles, tops, cooking vessels, telephones, all so lustrous and polished, that they could put glass to shame. These and the brightly coloured Kondapalli dolls of Andhra Pradesh made out of light ‘Punki’ wood are the traditional dolls through which generations of children have taken their first step towards defining beauty, space and colour.

Among the profusion of traditional wooden dolls are Kinhal birds and animals of Karnataka, Varanasi’s refined and vibrantly colourful birds, dancers and musicians, Rajasthan’s folksy lacquered dolls and those most charming of painted and decorated wooden dolls, made by Oriya craftsmen, which are covered with dots and florets. Andhra Pradesh’s Tirupati’s fabulous raja rani figures, wondrously embellished and painted with gold are, alas, museum pieces now, though more pedestrian pieces of god and goddess are still being carved at Tirupati. Far away in Bihar painted wooden dolls made in the abstract style are great favourites as gifts on auspicious occasions, while the realistic fruit made by Gokak toymakers in Maharashtra still tempt one into buying them. So closely does art imitate life in their creation.

Papier mache and rag dolls with vivid colours and magical movement! They are a universal favourite with both the toymaker and buyer. Artisans in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh make beautiful papier mache ‘tricky dolls’ of Rama and Sita where Rama is so placed, that he regularly moves in front of Sita, whereupon she folds her hands in devotion – obviously a great draw at ritual pujas and kathas of the epics. Kerala has an old tradition of making exquisitely coloured mobiles of animals, birds and snakes which unfurl when one whistles. Then there are the ethereal looking solapith (Indian cork) dolls of west Bengal, intricately carved gods and goddesses used for ritual worship and auspicious occasions, flowers and dolls for children to play with and sholapith rattles hung on a child’s cradle.

In fact, all over India, the toymaker uses discarded powder box tins, pieces of foil, coconut shells, and paper, and this remarkable ingenuity to fashion fascinating ‘dynamic’ dolls; paper birds which fly in the air, snakes that coil and uncoil, sholapith monkeys which loop a hoop, parrots that squeak and much more.

"We in India have neglected a craft that depicts India’s culture at grassroots level. Each community in India has its own traditions which are reflected in the dolls made by soft wood, paper and bright colours," says Prof Sudarshan Khanna who heads the Toy Design department in National Institute of Design (NID). To make amends, students of the National Institute of Design (NID) are trying to revive Indian folk dolls that are eco-friendly. Conducting workshops for the much ignored doll making community across the country, improving their designs and training them in quality control methods, the premier design institute seems to be doing it all within the banner of their Toy Design and Development, a post-graduate programme. MF