CHENNAI: Chennai is all set for the festive season and Mylapore is the place to be in. From colourful dolls to flowers, coconuts to fruits and bangles to slippers and bags, the streets of Mylapore have it all.
A visit to the Mylapore Tank gives us a glimpse of the city’s festivities. There are young girls dressed in paavadai shattais, women in silk and polycot sarees adorned with golden jhumkis and bangles and perhaps, a few men in khadi and fabindia kurtas. Shopkeepers and roadside vendors eagerly negotiate with their fickle-minded customers and, the auto drivers crowd the streets hoping to earn a fat profit.
While dolls, music, food and attire take centre stage at this time of the year, a small chat with the shopkeepers and vendors tells us the story behind the dolls. No, it is not the mythological story. It is the story of unmatched craftsmanship, the tedious task of making beautiful dolls, organising it and marketing it.
Interestingly, small and big roadside vendors had a different story to tell from an employee in a large shop. While all of them sourced their dolls from artisans in various villages, their customer base and profits were vastly dissimilar.
THE BIG SHOPKEEPER
One of the big shops near the bus stand was crowded. Dolls were being neatly packed with newspapers and placed in hay and sealed with brown tapes. One of the employees narrated their story. He said, “We have been selling golu dolls for ten years now. Our dolls are hand-sculpted, mud idols and painted with oil paints. We don’t use vegetable dyes anymore. Our dolls stand apart because we don’t make them using moulds. Our business is good but we hope to increase our sales soon.”
THE SMALL ROADSIDE VENDOR
Lakshmi sold a different variety of dolls. They were made of Plaster of Paris (PoP) and not mud. She said, “I am from Salem. I source my dolls from a village down south. For the last five years, I have sold dolls in this season near the tank.”
She added that people tend to prefer dolls made of mud. While she does earn a decent profit, it isn’t very high.
Her dolls comprised animals, the Laughing Buddha, Lord Shiva and many others. Unlike the mud ones, these idols had fewer colours. She said they required the use of chemical paints. They were made using moulds and had a polished finish. Their finish is more long-lasting.
THE BIG ROADSIDE VENDOR
Finally, the big roadside vendor explained the actual journey of the dolls from its creator to its retailer. Sudhakaran and his family sold dolls at Mylapore for more than forty years. He undertook the business five years ago.
He said, “Artisans and craftsmen from a couple of villages supply dolls to us. In fact, the dolls are crafted by both men and women. They are paid according to their quality of work ranging from Rs. 1000 to Rs. 8000. This is excluding food and other perks too. Sometimes children also get involved to help their parents.”
He also said that there is a supervisor who monitors the completion of a particular number of idols each year. Apparently, it is a year-long process involving elderly women too. From the profit they earn each year, they invest a part of the income in raw materials once again.
He elaborated on his own profit margins. He hiked prices by a minimum of 30-50 rupees adding transportation charges to it.
When asked about what was unique this time, he said it was a set called Mullaikutherukodupaari. This was a set worth fourteen thousand rupees. All the pieces had been bought except for one. It is made of paper mache this set was painted in rich gold and pink colours. It represented the story of three different mythological tales famous in the South Indian tradition, one of them being the story of Avaiyaar. As you can see on the left, it has a carriage.
THE HOUSE GOLU
While shopkeepers and doll makers form an integral part of navratri, the true essence of the festival lies in homes where these dolls are kept. Almost every south indian household follows the tradition of keeping these dolls as part of navratri. They keep it on a series of steps – the stairs being in odd numbers. The dolls are beautifully arranged, with lights, rangoli and thematic accompaniments on either side of the steps for nine days. The oil lamp or kuthuvalakku is lit and incense is burnt in the evening. Guests are invited to see the golu and gifts (tambulam) are given as part of the custom.
In many houses, keeping the dolls is a custom that is carried on from one generation to the next. The dolls are preserved and passed on, adding to the collection and the wide variety each year. It is also a tradition to add a new doll every year to the collection.
“Some of our dolls are more than hundred years old”, said Dr. Sunita Maithreya, whose family has followed the tradition for almost a century. She explained that the older dolls were hand-sculpted and painted with vegetable dyes. She adds that it is very difficult to get dolls of such quality these days because they are made from moulds and their features aren’t very sharp.
According to her, the dolls had become increasingly expensive over the years. “Earlier the dolls were prices at 25 anas and a maximum of Rs. 25. But now, the prices have reached nearly fifteen thousand rupees”, she said. Yet, to her and her daughters, the joy of buying an idol in the streets of Mylapore is still enjoyable and a visit to the tank at least once every navratri is a must.
No festive occasion is complete without food. While guests come to visit, sundal and payasam is also given. Sometimes, sweets like halwa, sonpapdi and mysurpak are also served.
So if you’re looking for a doll this year, to add to your collection next festive season then take a trip to the tank. The small and big artisans will be there for another week! It isn’t just the dolls, walk into Mylapore and explore the tiny shops around the Tank and purchase almost everything from bindis and bangles to coconuts and fruits. It is definitely, Mylapore calling!