However much you might try to deny it, we have all played with them, thoroughly enjoying it. I wonder what childhood would have been like without the doll-playing and the occasional bashing of rag dolls. What would we sneak into our doll’s house with? There are numerous signified meanings associated with the word ‘doll’. Here, it refers to a miniaturized figure of a human being. So, if you’re used to saying, “Oh you’re my doll,” it has got nothing to do with what is written below.

All art is a product of ethos and context. Similarly, there is a long history to the art of doll-making. There was a time when dolls were manually made through a lot of effort and used for a religious purpose. With time, they attained the function of being playthings for little girls (usually). Evidently, this drift spread far and wide and the idea of hand-crafted dolls diminished into the background as they started being  manufactured and mass-produced.

Doll-making is an exquisite art that involves immense labour and intricate detailing, not to forget the sheer amount of patience that it calls for. Françoise Bosteels is one of the few doll-makers of India who possesses a unique manual dexterity and skill of crafting beautiful figures that speak through their silence. Bosteels is a Belgian religious sister and nurse by training. She came to India nearly four decades ago to attend to the sick in the villages of Tamil Nadu and is an active socialist,  often involved in theological and health awareness programmes. In her first few years in India, she absorbed everything about the culture and the people she saw around her – the life of the villagers, their beliefs, their actions and reactions; she noticed the social hierarchy, class clashes, instances of women exploitation, child marriage, female infanticide, and the grievance of the widows. Mundane sights like a woman ploughing the field, street children, a flower man on his bicycle or a man carrying a churn, inspired her in ways she hadn’t thought of. She admired the scenic beauty of India,  its distinct customs and beliefs and put every inch of it in her dolls as she saw it.

I met Bosteels a few years ago at one of her exhibitions  in Ahmedabad. On inquiring about the events that led her to the start of making dolls, she says, “At the age of around 16, I was confined to bed for 18 long months with a life-threatening illness. My mother brought me some material and fabrics to work on to root out my solitude. This is from when my journey  to doll-making began.” Before she knew it, her Christmas crib turned into a creative pursuit that changed her life forever. She sees her dolls as her poems and says, “These figures express my experiences, questions, discoveries, dreams, anger, tears, prayers and celebration.”

The process of making these dolls is very interesting. She uses plastic cones and pipe cleaners to prepare the body base and wraps them up with wool, cotton or compact paper which makes the muscle. They are usually clothed with a fabric called feutre which is knit onto the body. Silver and golden threads are used to make the delicate jewellery of the dolls and after about 6 to 8 hours into the work, a single figurine is ready for display.

Bosteels has held several exhibitions across the world which have received overwhelming responses. She has conducted doll-making workshops  for victims of child-marriage, child labour and for women in prostitution and she believes that these workshops prove to be a healing process for  people who have spent their lives in a virtual hell.

She shares an experience of when she interacted with a group of villagers, “I showed them the dolls that were clad in a sari and a dhoti and recited the stories behind them, and they beat their chests and said, ‘These are our miseries.’” Seeing her dolls makes you gasp in astonishment at her ability to see so much beauty and pain  at the same moment. This is the kind of beauty that would make one brood for the inside story.

It is a delight to lay a finger on dolls that aren’t merely toys to primp and play with. I say, bring back the dolls and let a slow revival of a lost, yet treasured art form of doll-making begin and shape itself into a progressive culture.

Now, I let them speak. Prick up your ears.

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All images have been taken from here and their copyright rests with the artist only.