Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh is defined by its mountainous terrain, scattered village settlements, patches of maize crop and the indigenous tribes that it inhabit. Native to one of the most backward tribal groups called the Bhil and Bhilala tribes and bordering parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, this region specialises in one of the most beautiful forms of art depicting the region’s rich aesthetics- that of ‘Tribal Doll Handicrafts’.
Locally known as the ‘Adivasi Gudiya Hastashilp’, the art of doll making contributes to rural livelihoods through creative arts and craft pursuits. An interesting case in point is how varying forms of art, fabric prints and designs have managed to cross and transcend boundaries influencing indigenous cultures and occupations. This is evident from the eclectic amalgamation of tasteful Gujarati ethnic styles of jewelry/beads and the Rajasthani ‘Kathputli’ (puppet) patterns that adorn these pretty dolls.
A piece of art, a source of livelihood
With sharp and stoic facial features, kohled eyes, bindis, heavy traditional wear along with survival appurtenances such as bow & arrow, sickle and festive accessories such as dholak or flute – a typical tribal doll pair is priced at Rs 200-500. It exhibits the dual phenomenon of the tribal way of life comprising of colorful ethnics on one hand, and their means of daily subsistence, on the other.
For home décor and more
Characterised with a spectrum of rich colours, the dolls vary in shapes and sizes. Embellished with typical tribal wedding attires, traditional clothes and silver ornaments, the dolls of Jhabua are exquisite illustrations of community folk, and their historical significance. A Galsan Mala (bead necklace) or Chaandi ki Hansli (silver necklace), Kadas (bangles), the colorful Bhagoriya bridal wear comprising of Ghagra/Choli together with small utility items such as bamboo baskets and earthenware make these dolls a unique piece for home décor.
Dressing up the dolls
The heavy silver jewelry and bead work, which is an indispensable feature of these dolls, see their provenance in the daily life of the rural women – who usually lack storage spaces or secure shelters. On the other hand, the male counterparts are seen in Dhoti & Kurti donning traditional Teer Kaamthi (bow arrows) – highlighting hunting and gathering as primitive occupations of this tribe. These dolls in the haat bazaars and melas are often purchased by people for gifting purposes especially on occasions such as marriages and religious festivals.
How these dolls come to life
The raw materials used are colorful vestiges of fabrics, clay, plaster of paris, cotton, wires, beads, metal jewelry, silver paint and bamboo. The facial expressions are carved out with great attention to detail with brushes and thumb impressions. A variety of these dolls such as the Gujarati Garba dolls, ‘shaadi ka joda’ (married couples), Radha Krishna could be found for sale at ‘Shakti Emporium’ famously known as ‘Gudiya Ghar’ located near district headquarters of Jhabua and owned by a private entrepreneur in the business for the past 35 years.
Storytellers of tradition
These dolls carry with them stories of artistic traditions, occupational legacies and sustenance practices which together define the economics of this region. Such symbolic representation of the Bhil and Bhilala tribe, their existence and ethos, translates these little dolls into an important medium of expression of historical ethnicity highlighting their unparalleled relevance in contemporary times – thereby redefining and enhancing the cultural capital quotients of our country.
Because of the exemplary aesthetic appeal this art form exudes and the economic opportunity it promises to some of the most backward communities, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission and other government schemes support self-help groups while promoting this art form which is gradually becoming a unique selling point for the region and finally carving a niche for itself on the national map of Indian handicrafts. Over time independent entrepreneurs and women groups have also forayed into this field.
Keeping alive the tradition
These cute little symbols from Jhabua provide the much required visibility to the hidden talents of the poor and their undiscovered entrepreneurial acumen, while being important reflections of diverse ethnic fabric of the indigenous peoples. It is fascinating to take note of the skills of the rural poor, struggling in economies marred with credit and time constraints – yet keeping alive the timeless glory of tribal traditions through cultural representations of their history, ethos and means of living.
Swasti Pachauri is a social sector consultant currently working as a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, India. Views expressed in the article are personal.