The Serious Business of Dolls During Dasara — or as in the South of Vindhyas is called, Navaratri

When children first begin playing with dolls, they are soft toys. A teddy bear, a dinosaur, a soft, cuddly elephant – these were the toys my child took to as an infant. He then graduated to cars and trucks. Parents of toddlers know more about trucks than the average person out there says my completely unscientific study — xkcd also agrees.

But at this time of the year, toys and dolls take a new form in some Indian households.

Dolls and Navaratri: Creativity Begins At Home

Every year for Navaratri, while northern India celebrates Dussehra as the vanquishing of Ravana by Rama, in the south it is to honour goddesses – Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga. The east, of course, commemorates this festival by dedicating it entirely to Durga.

Source : Golu padi (padi meaning steps in Tamil), with the dolls on display

But there’s something unique to the way some communities in the states of Andhra Pradesh (and Telangana), Karnataka and Tamil Nadu observe this festival: They do it with dolls. And this is no child’s play!

Around this time, markets are crowded with women and men trying to find the perfect dolls that will complete their display at home.

· These dolls are made of clay or ceramic, so that makes them durable, and if disposed, biodegradable too.

· These displays are on steps, usually in odd numbers. Each step is filled with dolls.

· In the evenings, people visit their friends and relatives to celebrate together. There are gifts for women and children, great food and fun times.

Dolls as a Symbol of Familial Legacy

In many households, these dolls are passed down to the next generation, like a temple doll that I have which came from my great grandmother up until me.

Source : Marapacchi Bommai

There’s one set of dolls that are quite special – the marapachi bommai. Made of teak or rose wood, these dolls are given by mothers to their daughters when the latter get married. They represent a husband and a wife for prosperity and fertility (not necessarily in that order). While they were earlier available everywhere, now, they are limited to Tirupati and Channapatna.

Mine came dressed up. They had pretty sequined fabrics wrapped around them, colourful headgear and necklaces made of beads, almost as if they were real people decked up for an event.

When golu (the doll arrangement) is made, these two occupy the primary space. They are the first dolls to be arranged, the first to be put to ‘sleep’ after nine days of being on their feet. As a child, I’d dress them every year, an opportunity to get creative.

Dolls Also Upgrade, Of Course

Every year, we hear stories of the various new dolls that line the stairs of Navratri celebrations. In 2017, dolls of the then Chief Minister of Tamilnadu J Jayalalithaa were extremely popular. But everyone from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Mother Teresa have been on some display somewhere.

Source : The “Amma” doll on the streets of Mylapore

Source : Cartoon Bommai

But Dolls Are Serious Business

For children (of all ages), toys are more than just a (dis)play thing. They are one of the ways we interact with the world, even understand it.

Earlier this month, Barbie® and neuroscientists from Cardiff University published a study that shows that playing with dolls allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills.

There are several debates around gender-segregated dolls — you know Barbies for girls and trucks for boys kinda thing. Mattel launched “gender-neural toys” last year. Barbies got more diverse this year.

Source : Mattel’s diverse line of Barbies

In fact, much of ‘celebrating with dolls’ — called Golu in Tamil, Bommala Koluvu in Telugu and Bombe Habba — is limited to a few communities, often upper caste, symbolising a limited legacy.

This Navaratri might just be the right opportunity to encourage creativity and compassion among your kids. Make your display inclusive — pick dolls across class, caste, gender, sexuality, and age prisms. Dress up some dolls with your kids. It can be a fun activity for the children, and a great outlet for them to demonstrate their creative side. Tell them stories, also encourage them to retell it in their own way.

The future belongs to those who can critically examine life and introspect on their realities. This Navaratri, imbibe some curiosity in your kids!

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