While on a search for some unique dolls to adorn my Navarathri golu this year, I chanced upon an interesting FB post that spoke about an entire street in Kanchipuram dedicated to making a variety of dolls.
Asthagiri or Bommai kaara veedhi (dolls street), as it is called by the locals, is a century-old narrow lane with around 50 houses near the Varadharaja Perumal temple. All the households are engaged in making dolls and most of them are in this business for generations. “It is my husband’s ancestral business and when I got married and settled down here, I also took to it,” smiles Shantha (68), whose two sons are also now part of it. The verandah of her modest house is filled with rows of colourful clay dolls depicting mythological tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavadham, gods, goddesses and freedom fighters. Dolls made with papier-mâché are also popular as they are light-weight and may not break easily. “By god’s grace business was good this year, a huge relief from the past two years,” she says, and many others across the street also echo her sentiment.
Padmanabhan, a member of RC Kanchipuram, RID 3231, is a third-generation doll-maker running a 73-year-old unit. He is busy packing an elaborate Hindu wedding set, part of an order from a patron from Thanjavur. Each of the 10 dolls of the set — the bride and the groom, the priests and the guests — are carefully wrapped in hay and bubble pack, to be sent by courier. “All the dolls are well-cushioned so that they do not break in transit and if they do, we readily replace them at no cost to our customer,” he says. The prices are surprisingly nominal and those who have the heart to bargain do get a good deal. During the pre-Covid times, all these houses did thriving business during the two months before Navarathri, for people would rather travel here and load their cars with uniquely ideated dolls at nominal rates than buy them locally in their hometown for a price that is nearly double.
“Our business took a big hit two years ago when the first wave of Covid was at its peak and the government had announced a long lockdown. We couldn’t manufacture much this year due to shortage of funds. Most of these dolls are carried forward from the last two years,” says Padmanabhan’s wife Savitha, adding, “if this continues for one more year we may have to sell our ancestral home where we are currently residing and move into a rented house.”
This year too, the state government’s decision to keep the temples closed Friday to Sunday has affected the sales, as pilgrims and tourists visit this town only on those days and “we would have donegood business otherwise.”
Padmanabhan’s ancestors, like many others in the locality, started out by making clay pots, and diversified gradually into making huge clay dolls to adorn the temples in the town. “In 1955 my grandfather made a miniature model of the famous Garuda Seva event where the gods are taken in a procession in all their finery. This set of dolls became popular among the people during that year’s Navrathri and since then there is no looking back. Today we are exporting dolls made of clay and papier-mâché, in addition to meeting wholesale and retail orders from across the country. Every year people request for unique and creative sets and we oblige,” he says. Huge Ganesha idols are also made in these homes for the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in not only Tamil Nadu but also neighbouring states such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
At least 2,500 families are solely dependent on this doll-making vocation in Kanchipuram. “All our dreams depend on the sales we do in these two months,” says Padmanabhan. Many who have taken micro loans are unable to pay the instalments and this has been accumulating since the last three years. “It will take at least 4–5 years for us to recover from these losses.”
Covid worsened the situation for the craftsmen, for, they had suffered a similar hit in 2019 when the entire town was chaotic with the worship of Athivaradar. The idol is brought out from under the temple tank for worship for 48 days once in every 40 years.
In 2019 when the idol was brought out and installed in the Varadarajaswamy temple premises the town swarmed with pilgrims from across the country and overseas. Business for the hospitality sector and small businesses such as local transport and flower vendors thrived but with heavy restrictions put in place to manage the surging crowd, the doll-makers were badly affected. “We were not allowed to sell our wares, and since lorries and trucks were not allowed to ply within the city, we could not ship out our dolls. As a result many wholesalers in other cities looked elsewhere for their needs.”
Shantha gives an elaborate sketch of the processing. Clay is the backbone of the doll and it must be kneaded into a fine soft dough. The dye that is the mould is carved by expert craftsmen. The clay dough is then stuffed into the front and back moulds and then pressed. The doll is then detached from the moulds, scraped and is left to dry in the shade for the next 4–5 days and then baked. It’s further coated with chalk powder and adhesive mixture and once dry, is coated with several layers of paints. Spray guns are used to give variations in the shades.
Her neighbour Ashokan enthusiastically shows his collection which included a large idol of Krishna with his gopikas in papier-mâché and I am totally hooked. He is a diploma holder in mechanical engineering. Having had the taste of the corporate world, he still chose his ancestral profession of doll-making. “This vocation is the only essence of our lives; four generations have passed, yet we still cherish this craft. We have always had a boom in our business except these two years,” he says.
At the end of this magical world, I come across labourers deftly packing cartons of dolls with hay strewn all over their homes, and a little girl gleefully helping them, and wonder if we have ever paid attention to the many woes and wonders of our cottage industries. They deserve our help.
Pictures by Jaishree