CHENNAI: Speaking about his craft, S Rajendraprabhu unexpectedly declares, “The doll bounces back however much it’s pushed down. That’s how it is for us too.” With god’s grace, he adds. After all, he still sells his art — the Thanjavur bommai — at the temple, as did his ancestors. It might be this principle that encouraged many artisans to pick up the craft, generation after generation. But, the sentiment is sparse among the ones still left in the field. Prabhu might be one of the last still holding on to optimism.
Battle of will and work
Prabhu and his wife, Kalaiselvi, have been in this line of work for 15 years now; the third generation in his family to take it forward. Having grown up around the craft, his 11-year-old son seems to have taken a natural liking to it as well, already bringing home medals and awards from sculpting competitions. Yet, there’s more heart than ease in keeping up the practice in the family. “There are hundreds of artisans here who make the Thanjavur plate, veenai and bommai. But none of us has a store where we can sell it ourselves. We give our dolls to the private shop inside Periya Kovil, some ten wholesale shops at the market, a couple of private hotels, the aranmanai society (Thanjavur Maratha Palace) and such. Then, there’s Poompuhar; they would take a standard order but we’ll get paid for it only if the products are sold. Besides this, there are a few online shops that commission orders. It’s only word of mouth that gets us direct customers,” he explains.
Tourists — especially those from outside India — had been a major point of sales. The pandemic has put paid to this significant source of revenue, he points out. “While the Coronavirus has dulled the prospects, the invasion of plastic alternatives has also affected sales,” begins S Bhoopathy, who has been making these dolls since he was 15 years old. “We don’t want to end this craft with this generation. But there’s no support we have right now to take this forward to the next generation. We don’t have any money to invest in this; loans are hard to come. The most we are offered is Rs 10,000 or Rs 50,000. While this work may seem very simple, we need an investment of at least Rs 10 lakh to revamp the process and scale up. So, work has been rough but there seems to be no way out of this,” he details.
Of labour lost
Amid dozens of half-finished dolls and clay statues left to dry in the sun, in the open part of the terrace, under the little shade offered by the building behind her, a woman sits with a bucket of clay. She picks up a doll, smooths over a measure of clay around its midriff — where two pieces have been pasted together with a gum made from tapioca powder — and lines them all up. She has done it enough times to automatically pick up the right amount of clay for each piece; she barely needs to look at the doll in hand. She has about a hundred pieces to get through. These will be left out in the sun for a day before the master artisans — Prabhu and Kalaiselvi — get to painting them. Yet, labour of such talent and training does not happen easily.
“Aal vasathi illa. This involves a heavy workload. People would rather go to coolie velai that would fetch them more money (work under the MGNREGA scheme has also been a preferred alternative). The most I can give them is only Rs 200. So, not a lot of people take up this work. If we were to get more workers, we can supply to shops in other districts too and have more scope for sales,” says Bhoopathy. Prabhu has the same gripe.
Even working with a couple of people requires a strenuous period of training and a considerable loss of raw materials during the process. “In the early stages, people get paid only Rs 3,000 a month because there is the learning curve and there is only so much they can do. But once they pick up the skills, there are those who earn Rs 300-Rs 350 a day. It depends on the individual’s skill,” explains Kalaiselvi. Yet, not everyone can afford to offer the same. When the profit on each sale is barely 30 per cent over the making costs, there isn’t much left behind for activities that serve to sustain the craft.
The burden of longevity
Across the country, the GI tag has had its fair share of successes and failures. Even as it has been accused of being a mere vanity project, its legal enforcement questioned in the face of fakes and cheaper alternatives (from synthetic, block print Kalamkari saris to non-Iruttukadai halwa), this recognition — in one way or the other — managed to sustain the art/craft for the next generation. While Thanjavur doll makers have to compete with the cheap immediacy of plastic variants, they have far bigger problems when it comes to taking the craft beyond the span of their careers. There aren’t enough artisans left behind and many of them don’t want their kids to take up the work after them. “My children are interested. But given that this pays very little, they are forced to consider other jobs. And kai thozhil is not something you can do on the side,” says Bhoopathy.
Prabhu, however, is an exception. His son has already taken to the craft, found his own way to it. And so he’ll be trained in the trade just as Prabhu himself picked it up from his father.
Yet, these exceptions can only help so much. There is a need for structured training for those interested. But that would require a lot more money and resources than what’s at hand right now. “When people come to us enquiring about training (be it for schools and colleges or women’s groups and such), we connect them to our members. Some of them take it, some don’t. They would have a budget for it that includes materials and labour costs; we won’t know if the government would be able to provide as much,” says Sitrarasan of the Thanjavur Handicraft Workers Cooperative Cottage Industrial Society, outlining the difficulties. On their part, Bhoopathy and Prabhu say that they are willing to do it if the interested party is able to fund the exercise; especially given that proper training would at least have to be a month-long process.
Keeping up with consumerism
In a room full of rajas and ranis in various stages of done-ness, there stood a line of girl-dolls dressed in pink and adorned with cherry blossom doodles. Prabhu says it was being made for a special order from China. “Orders from foreign countries are mainly for raja-rani but some have special requests — Santa Claus, Mother Mary or China bommai. So, we make the design accordingly,” he explains.
You would be hard put to find these versions of the Thanjavur bommai for your consumption. But the question is, who is buying the rajas and ranis anymore?
The plight in the pandemic
Things at the level of the Thanjavur Handicraft Workers Cooperative Cottage Industrial Society has also been bleak since the pandemic. Annual sales dropped from Rs 65 lakh to just Rs 36 lakh, shares Sittrarasan.