The Indian Toy Story

The story of Indian toys and dolls is timeless as the land herself. Creative urge and boundless human imagination had crafted dolls and toys of various shapes and sizes from prehistoric times. Wood, stone, clay, cloth, fur and leather are used to recreate figures and events from the palpable world and also from the imaginary world of folklore, legends and myths. They are the repositories of traditional wisdom and cultural heritage.

Playing with handmade toys and fondling the collectible dolls, the child learns his first lessons of survival and conduct. Replicating both the tangible and fantasy worlds, the toys and dolls map the socio-cultural history of any given society. From the simplest human figures carved out of stone, to the most modern G.I.Joes and Barbie dolls, civilization has moved on and on reflecting itself in its toys and dolls. In India, the earliest dolls, unearthed from the site of the Indus Valley civilization, date back to five thousand years. The culture of dolls and toys still survives and keeps mutating itself according to time and space. Each region in India has its own distinct style of making toys and crafting dolls. Each toy, every doll, has its own story to tell.

Assam and West Bengal make dolls out of pith, the soft stem of a plant growing in marshy and waterlogged areas. West Bengal is particularly famous for terracotta toys. Varanasi, Lucknow, Mathura and Vrindavan are known for their brightly painted wooden dolls and toys, and Rajasthan for dolls of unbaked clay. Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh is also known for lacquered toys and miniature utensils for children to play with.

In some places dolls are even made of a kind of grass called sikki. At times, a mixture of cow dung, sawdust and clay is shaped into toys and dolls and coated with bright paints. Orissa has a long tradition of wood crafted dolls, which is said to have originated out of the cult of Jagannath. Kondapalli in Andhra Pradesh is known for beautiful wooden toys. Toys in the shape of birds, animals, mythological characters, models of fruits and vegetables etc are chiseled out of locally available wood.

Nirmal, a village in Andhra Pradesh, is yet another toy making centre. Andhra Pradesh is also known for leather puppets. These are generally mythological figures, and some of them are about five feet tall and use vegetable dyes. Tirupati is famous for dolls made out of red wood, depicting the figures of the local deities. Madhya Pradesh is known for dolls made out of small cloth pieces. Craftsmen of Madhya Pradesh also make stuffed leather toys, which are gaily painted and generally depict various wild animals.

It is interesting to note that contrary to popular belief, dolls and toys are not just casual playthings, but are intrinsically related to the social and religious rites of a community. In northern India, the story of Krishna's birth (Janmashtami) is related in its entirety by means of clay dolls. In South India, the Dasara festival is called Bommai Kolu or a display of dolls. The first wooden dolls are given to a girl from her parents during her marriage and are called Marapachi Bommai. Since, in yester years, girls were married off at a very early age, parents gifted them with these dolls to play with. As a custom, the married girl is supposed to add at least one doll to her collection every year. In Bihar, the entire story of the Shyama Chak festival is related and depicted through clay images.

Today the urban child amuses itself with flashy cars and chic Barbies. Rural India still laughs with simple clay dolls and wooden carts and it is perhaps in these ethnic toys that the true charm and spirit of India may be found. A great variety of traditional Indian handcrafted toys and dolls, culled from every nook and corner of the country, are presented here. While the child might colour its imagination, unabashedly, with the timeless Indian toys and dolls, the adult, too shy to confess his attraction to dolls and toys, might put up a brave front and boast of these as rare collectibles.

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