Friday, October 11, 2013

Who’s behind that bommai?

A night of torrential rains hasn’t deterred the determination of the doll makers nor the festive spirit in Mylapore, the cultural hub of Chennai. It’s business as usual at the Mada Streets, which are thronged by patrons choosing the best dolls for their golu. Amidst the incessant honk of vehicles, calls of vendors and raised voices of bargaining customers, we talk to the doll makers who live on the streets for around 20 days to sell their bommais (dolls) that decorate many houses during Navarathri.

Almost every doll seller, who has set up a stall on Mada Street, has been in the business of making and selling dolls for around four generations. Jagadheeshwari, who hails from Panruti, a town in Kadalur district, visits Chennai with her family every Navarathri season to sell the dolls that her family makes throughout the year. “My father-in-law was an expert at making dolls and all of us learnt the art from him. Although he made them, using clay, we make them, using plaster of Paris, which is what the customers prefer,” says Jagadheeshwari before she is interrupted by an inquisitive kid, who wants to buy Chotta Bheem. She politely says that it is not available and assures him that she would make it for him next year. “These kinds of customers are the ones who keep us going. The more they ask for different kinds of dolls, the more innovative we can get,” she says. Jagadheeshwari promptly updates her to-do list with the young customer’s request. “A customer wanted a grahapravesam set. Another customer has placed an order for Vishnu’s vishwaroopam,” she laughs, “Not Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam!”

Kumar, who has a stall next to Jagadheeshwari’s, tries to be tactful with the customer, who tries to bargain unreasonably. While he refuses to sell the dolls to the patron, Kumar tells us, “These dolls are the result of a year of hard work. Some customers come with the mindset to negotiate illogically. I wish that they would understand the kind of massive efforts that we put into making these dolls.” The sellers set up the dolls on the roads a week before Navarathri begins and the sale goes on after a couple of days of golu. “If we deny the customer their price, the dolls are left unsold till the end of the festival, and eventually, we are forced to sell at unreasonable prices to make ends meet,” Kumar says.

Kumar and Jagadheeshwari, who are not from Chennai, seem to have completed their school education. But the next vendor we meet is a mechanical engineer. Anand Babu forayed into the business of selling golu bommai for his doting mother. “I have completed my B.E. and taken a break from my job-hunt to help my mother, who has been selling dolls since her grandfather’s time,” says Anand. The family visits Punroti and Kanchipuram to order and buy dolls. “The makers have increased the cost so much and because of which, the prices have gone up a lot. This year’s business isn’t going well,” says Anand.

The doll sellers concur on the sharp fall in profits from year to year. “Many people have changed their traditional practices and working people like to keep three or five small steps of golu. In spite of the decrease in sale, we would not want to give up our family business,” says Anand. Every doll maker manages other petty businesses during the rest of the year and some export to the USA too.

The doll makers are undoubtedly out-of-the-box thinkers and constantly strive to create new dolls. But the makers reveal that the demand for traditional dolls like Chettiar Bommai, Marapachi Bommai, Dasavatharam and Kalyana Set is still high. “This year Mysore Dussehra, Kumbh Mela Rishi and Sakkarathazhvar are in demand. Sometimes, to meet customers’ requests, we source dolls from Mumbai and Kolkata too. Some customers come back year after year without fail and it’s important to keep them happy. Our CM Jayalalithaa used to visit our stall when she was young,” reveals Ashok Kumar, another doll seller.

Doll making is a constantly evolving process. If makers moved from clay to plaster of Paris, now they try to be inventive to entice their customers. Anand thinks that education plays a vital role too in understanding customers’ minds. “A lady, who works in an IT firm, wanted to place an order for a ‘Facebook Pillaiyar’ — a figure of the Lord Ganesha with a computer on his lap. Maybe, my mother wouldn’t have been able to visualise it. But thanks to the exposure that I have had, I can precisely deliver  what that customer wanted,” says Anand, as he gathers feedback from customers to create a better offering of dolls next year.

(The story was originally published in Deccan Chronicle)

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