Dasara in south India is not only synonymous with the famous Mysore procession, but also with the custom of arranging dolls. Usually placed on nine steps to represent the nine nights of Navratri, the dolls are traditionally made of clay, though wooden dolls are common too.
Children and women hop from house to house to see the gombe or bombe - display of dolls. Radha and Krishna on a swing, the dashavataras of Lord Vishnu, other gods, goddesses and heroes from myths and folklore, this is one’s chance to meet all of them under one roof.
While the practice of buying a new doll every year is a common one, some add a new one for each of the nine days or a full row to delight regular visitors, especially children. Some are more innovative and might have baby Jesus in the arms of Mother Mary amid a rustic scene.
“I remember, when we were kids, my sister and I had gone to an old lady’s house down the road from ours, and surprise, we found a cricket pitch waiting for us, complete with tiny little cricketers, dressed in white scattered all around,” says Maitri V, an offline video editor.
At Shantala Arts Academy, Yeshwanthpur, too the display of dolls is an annual affair with representations from various lands - just as varied as their students. Tin soldiers from London, wooden animals from Africa, porcelain dolls from China and ‘Old Mac Donald’ farm animals from America have found their place among the older hand-me-down dolls in the room-full displayed.
The septuagenarian K R Padmaja, who has kept up with her practise of arranging doll for the past five decades, says, “For me, it’s a family tradition. So many of the dolls have been passed down from generation to generation.”
For 42-year-old Chitra Rao, this was a tradition she was deprived of as a child since she grew up in Mumbai. “I was more exposed to garba when I was young. Six years ago, when I moved here from the US, I learnt the art from my mother-in-law. We dress three to four-foot dolls with six-yard sarees,” she says, adding that she ensures that through the nine days, her house in Banashankari becomes the place of congregation for her extended family.
Chitra uses the wooden frames of the dolls she has, some from Chennai and some specially assembled from a village near Hampi, to create different characters. “I add sponge near the stomach area to give Ganesha a belly and near the chest and hip areas for the women characters.
“I believe that this is a legacy that should be passed on, if not the tradition itself, at least as memories that our children will carry with them and tell the coming generations about,” feels Chitra.