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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

My early childhood journey began in the rich soil of my native land, Thanjavur (formerly called Tanjore), a city in Tamil Nadu, India. Most of the existing great Chola Temples, which are UNESCO World Heritage Monuments, are located in and around Thanjavur. Thanjavur’s paintings, handicrafts, silk weaving, Tamil literature, classical dance and music are famous around the world. 

As an artist from Irving, Texas, my intention of writing this article is to unveil the science behind the creation of the handmade Thanjavur dancing dolls — traditionally known as Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai — and the craftsmanship of the talented artisans who make them.

Childhood Memories

Though I was born and raised in Thanjavur, I spent most of my time in the city of Chennai until I left for college. The only way I was able to keep myself connected with my native land was through childhood stories that my mother told me while growing up as a teenager.

One such recollection of my childhood memories was when my father had taken our entire family on a weekend trip to Punnainallur Mariamman Temple, which was over an hour from where my family lived. I was a two-year-old toddler sitting on my mother’s lap on the back seat of my father’s scooter, while my 7-year-old brother was holding the handlebar in front of my father and my 4-year older sister was snuggled in-between my father and mother. What a beautiful moment to recollect and relive!

Beautiful Dancing Dolls

On arrival, right opposite to the temple, there were many shops selling handmade crafts, many of which were displaying beautiful dancing dolls painted with hued colors and bobbling heads. My mother said that I was fascinated by those unique and exquisite dolls displayed in those shops, and this fascination would reappear every time I would visit the shops.

Though I had lived in Chennai for the majority of my childhood, my heart was always longing to visit my native land of Thanjavur, relive those earlier precious moments, and also learn more about the exquisite dolls that continued to fascinate me. With my love for arts and crafts, I researched and learned more about the Thanjavur dancing dolls.  These dolls have been made since the early 19th century when King Serfoji ruled Thanjavur.

King Serfoji

The credit for the beautiful structure of the dolls goes to the King for his love for this unique art and his taste for vibrant colors. The dolls earned a place in the Geographical Indications (GI) Registry by the Government of India as of 2008-09, which has helped to reflect on its science, aesthetics, and also its origin to lawfully belong to the city of Thanjavur. This has been an honorable step towards the preservation of Thanjavur’s rich culture and heritage.

The dolls are made in different shapes, sizes, styles, and colors by talented artisans. In ancient times, the dolls were made of clay taken from the banks of the river known as “Cauvery.” The rich and fertile soil is believed to make the doll have a beautiful presence. The dolls were individually made by hand using old, traditional methods. 

How The Dolls Are Made

Due to the potential to break and to the heaviness of the terracotta clay, the artisans began to use lightweight materials, such as the “plaster of Paris,” to create the dolls. The dolls come in sitting, standing, and rotating types. The artisans tend to design the doll with a sense of humor through its facial gestures, which is a unique component of each individual doll. The artisans making the Thanjavur dolls have continued to be in business for many generations following their ancestor’s traditions, and hence, the dolls continue to appear exquisite and reflect the artisans’ mastery of this ancient Tamil art.

(photos courtesy of Jayashree Krishnan)

Uruttu Bommai

There are two versions of the doll – the tilting version and the bobble head version. In the Tamil language, the tilting doll is also known as the “Uruttu Bommai.” (Picture A) The dolls mostly come as a pair representing the king and queen of the royal dynasties who ruled Thanjavur. They work on the principle of equilibrium, which decides the course of their movements.

The upper part of the doll is hollow whereas the bottom of the doll is structured such that it is heavy, curved (with a hemispherical base), and also designed in such a way that it will not topple over when external force is applied: it oscillates slowly and comes back to a stable position. These oscillations generate a dance-like appearance in the dolls, with slow oscillations and the center of gravity working with the total weight of the doll for it to move beautifully. It is quite fascinating to see how the doll’s center of gravity was identified way back in the early 19th century, in addition to how this concept evolved over time into the bobble head version.

Hand Painting

Materials such as sago, wood pulp, “plaster of Paris,” and paper mache are used to make the dough. Each doll is then made in halves by pressing the rolled-out dough into the shaped molds to make the front and back panels, after which the half panels are removed from the molds once they have dried. Sheets of paper are pasted to the inside part of the panel to add stiffness, and the front and back panels are glued together with an adhesive that uses tapioca flour as a base. The glued panels are then attached to the hemispherical base, which is made using the same dough.

 Once all parts of the doll are assembled, the doll is then smoothed using a sandpaper and then hand painted using water colors and oil paints, as desired. The talent of the artisan is based on how well they can draw facial expressions on the doll, in addition to how well the dolls are balanced.

Bobble Heads

“Chettiar Bommai” (Picture B) is the bobble head version of the dolls that also represents a specific Tamil community. The head is detachable and moveable whereas its body is stable. The head is interlinked to the stable body with a metal string. When the head is tapped, the head of the doll bobs, resembling a nodding gesture.

A variation of the bobble head version of the Thanjavur doll is the dancing girl doll. (Picture C) It is well known for its uniqueness and cultural beauty. This doll consists of four parts: the head, torso, skirt, and base. Three of these parts (the head, torso, and skirt) are moveable and detachable, whereas the base (feet) is firm. They are balanced one above the other and interlinked with the help of a metal string.

Classical Dancing Dolls

Once all parts of the doll are assembled, even the gentlest tap on the skirt will allow the doll to oscillate, transforming it into a beautiful dancer. This doll can be made into various styles to represent the different traditional dance forms in India, such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, etc. The doll’s facial expressions serve as a symbol of joy, diplomacy, and native art.

Despite the geographical indication status of the Thanjavur dolls in the modern world, there is only limited growth for the artisans making them due to the invasion of plastic and battery-operated dolls sold in the market. This is primarily due to the fact that they are much cheaper and more easily made in bulk with the use of machinery. Nevertheless, the Thanjavur doll has become a souvenir for any tourist to remind him/her of the rich cultural heritage of Thanjavur, and is used as a decorative doll in the Hindu festival of “Navratri Kolu.”

Learning about my native treasure has been an enriching experience for me and has opened up not only my understanding of the rich culture and heritage of Thanjavur, but has also given me an opportunity to share it with people around the globe.

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Jayashree Krishnan

Jayashree Krishnan is an educator and founder of the custom bakery “Jay’s Creations” based in Irving, Texas. She has written recipes on Indian desserts in a couple of magazines published in the United...