The story of my grandmother’s doll

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As Navratri festivities resume after two pandemic years, people are tracking down and restoring vintage dolls. We travel through galleries, museums and Moore Market in Chennai to find out why

As Navratri festivities resume after two pandemic years, people are tracking down and restoring vintage dolls. We travel through galleries, museums and Moore Market in Chennai to find out why

Curator Ashvin Rajagopalan of Ashvita Art Gallery has spent the last couple of years collecting vintage dolls. And he is not alone.

This year, even as people return to celebrating Navratri, the nine-day long festival of dolls, with enthusiasm, there is more introspection as a result of the two pandemic years, when the world was forced to slow down. As a result, instead of investing in new dolls, more people are looking towards their grandmother’s attics and antique stores to recapture the joys of the past.

The tradition of a golu at home during Navratri is unique to South India, where papier mache dolls are displayed thematically on steps (usually 3, 5, 7 or 11) with sacred food offerings every day. This is a time for reunions, for inviting friends to gather and admire golu arrangements, and traditionally dolls are passed on from generation to generation.

Visual artist Anbukathir Jacob worked with the doll makers of Kanchipuram, to develop golu dolls with papier mache incorporating vintage aesthetics, propotios and colours. This is for the Golu Doll Project by the Crafts Council of India.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Older dolls that are kept in the attic are often broken during handling, which is inevitable. Therefore, it is a tradition to buy new dolls every year during Navratri,” says Ashvin. He adds that people are now moving away from the mass produced versions sold in Mylapore, Purasaiwalkam, Kodambakkam and T Nagar, and instead looking for dolls that look similar to the ones their grandmothers collected.

During the quiet of the pandemic, Ashvin started restoring vintage dolls as a hobby, then was so captivated by the process that he started to build a collection. “The good quality terracotta dolls that existed in those days were made by artists who took time and had patience and understood the value of the craft,” he says. Just in time for Navratri, Ashvita unveiled a collection of over 15 golu dolls, all between 60 to 80 years old, which have been restored and repainted. On sale for ₹35,000 to ₹1.5 lakh, these dolls are selling fast.

Vintage golu dolls restored and repainted at the Ashvita Art Gallery, Chennai, by Ashvin Rajagopalan.

Vintage golu dolls restored and repainted at the Ashvita Art Gallery, Chennai, by Ashvin Rajagopalan.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“The cost of the vintage dolls depends on the number of days spent restoring them,” says Ashvin. These include religious figures such as Krishna at different ages, goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi, Lord Shiva, Muruga and Vinayaga.

Artist, doll restorer and painter, S Paramasivam, who works from his shop, Jai Maruti Manual Arts in Mylapore, says, “Families are emotionally attached to dolls that have been handed down generations. In the past couple of years especially, more people have been coming to me with requests to restore their vintage dolls.”

This year, as many families are adapting to downsized golu arrangements, there is an increased focus on finding dolls that hold meaning to them. “Everyone is spending a lot of time looking for the perfect doll,” says Paramasivan, “I had a customer who found one near a temple and picked it up as he was fascinated by its thirutham and lakshanam (visual balance),” he says.

Rent a golu

Mumbai-based Sivaraman Iyer’s catering business, Food on Wheels, has launched a service called Golu on Lease. “We have a collection of dolls and steps (3, 5 or 7). Our staff take the dolls and arrange them thematically, then dismantle the steps and bring them back to our godown,”he says. They launched their service in Chennai last year. “This year we have set up golu in over 365 homes in Chennai, mostly for senior citizens who were unable to organise it on their own. Golu on Lease is the most suitable option for those who don’t have the necessary manpower or storage hassles. Young couples who have the interest but do not have the paraphernalia also make use of our service,” he adds. For details, call 9833671389.

“Often the head, arms or legs are broken. I recreate the broken part and blend it proportionate to the doll,” he says, adding that his special skill is in “drawing the eyes and lips, and also colour mixing”. Paramasivan uses metal paste, resin, hardener (MSeal) and thin metal wire to recreate the broken parts of clay dolls. When it comes to papier mache dolls, he blends newspaper and sealant liquid. For painting, he uses mostly acrylic and automotive paint. His charges start at ₹500, and go up depending on the amount of work required.

Chennai-based visual artist Anbukadhir Jacob, spearheads the Golu Doll Project by the Crafts Council of India. “I worked with two senior doll makers in Kanchipuram. We made a clay model, and developed 21 different types of moulds” she says. Moulds developed by CCI include Hindu gods and goddesses such as the Rama set, Lakshmi-Saraswathi set, Vishnu, Vinayaga, Krishna and the dancing girls set. They are about 14 inches in height, and prices start at ₹1,300.

Vintage golu dolls exhibition tiitled Uruvakkam at Dakshinachitra heritage museum.

Vintage golu dolls exhibition tiitled Uruvakkam at Dakshinachitra heritage museum.

“The dolls needed a critical shift in visual perception right from the conception, contours, proportions, posture, features, jewellery, costumes to the final finishing process of choosing appropriate painting material, colour palettes and painting techniques,” says Anbukathir, adding that she and the artists collaborated to enhance the dolls while being realistic about limitations. “They were initially reluctant and unenthusiastic about the intervention to transition to new forms and colour schemes, but once they saw the outcome, they gradually began to be more appreciative and accepting,” she adds.

Storage tips

Paramasivan gives tips to pack and store dolls: Wipe the dolls, wrap it with butter paper, and then wrap it with gada cloth or bag. The next step is to again bubble wrap it and securing it with adhesive tapes. Now, this has to be wrapped with newspaper and kept it boxes. Packing this way ensures there is no or less damage to the dolls.

“Sales have been immensely encouraging as they sold out in two days and makers got pre-orders for next year’s Navratri,” says Gita Ram, CCI general secretary, adding that the new moulds have been left with the doll makers as creative property.

Moore Market in Chennai, popular with antique hunters has a wide range available, usually priced between ₹200 and ₹2000. “We source these from households and temples,” says A Soosai Raj. In the business for 12 years, Soosai is known for his collection of coins and miniature toys. “Look at these vintage dolls. Do dolls made today have this nerthi (perfection and sharp finish)?” he asks, holding up a baby Krishna, which he says could be over 70 years old.

Vintage dolls for sale at Chennai’s Mooremarket Complex.

Vintage dolls for sale at Chennai’s Mooremarket Complex.
| Photo Credit: RAGU R

S Velayutham, another antique dealer at Moore Market who has been in the business for 14 years says that vintage dolls are also in demand in the film industry. “Period films or TV serial producers hire these for a fee (daily or weekly rent, plus transport charges). Apart from this, we have gallery owners and collectors from across the world who buy them from us,” he says. The antique dealers say that golu dolls are increasingly being sold or given away to temples as people move from houses to apartments.

Dive for the display

This Navratri, an underwater golu is an option to consider while on sundal rounds. The dolls that are displayed on a traditional seven-step setup at VGP Marine Kingdom, were specially crafted to prevent dissolving in water. The artisans’ challenge was to ensure that the dolls painted with non-toxic paints withstand salt water by coating them with waterproof resin (epoxy art resin formula). The resin prevents soaking and most importantly, is also safe for the environment, according to the makers.

@VGP Marine Kingdom, Injambakkam. On till October 5, 10am to 7pm. For details, call 8939932222. Book tickets at www.vgpmarinekingdom.in/tickets

At the open-air heritage museum, DakshinaChitra, ongoing exhibition Uruvakkam displays vintage dolls along with the painting or newspaper image that inspired them. Each has a backstory, with some being a century old; most of the dolls are 80 years and older, and have been curated by Indhumathi Mohan and Dingdi Gangte, library staff of the museum.

The mostly donated dolls have been painted by in-house restorer L Amirthanathan. “While MK Thiagaraja Bhagavather, actor Baby Saroja, are offshoots from cinema, the images of national leaders, and Bharat Mata reflect the nation’s freedom struggle. “The dancing dolls series were all made in the year the Tamil film, Chandralekha, was released,” says Indhumathi.

“Nostalgia plays a huge role here,” says Ashvin, explaining why people are putting so much effort into finding and restoring vintage dolls. “They evoke fond childhood memories. They bring back the ability to appreciate a certain beauty that we seem to be forgetting in this fast-paced world of cost-conscious, commercial, and commodified products.”

An artist, Paramasivam, repaints 40 to 60 years old Navarathri Golu dolls at Mylapore

An artist, Paramasivam, repaints 40 to 60 years old Navarathri Golu dolls at Mylapore
| Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ B



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