Written by Aashi Sadana
Standing tall in the heart of Delhi, Shankar’s International Dolls Museum is home to perhaps the largest collection of costume dolls in the world. The museum, which traces its beginnings to the personal collection of eminent political cartoonist K Shankar Pillai, opened to the public in 1965.
When India’s former president Dr S Radhakrishnan inaugurated the building, there were less than 1,000 dolls on display. Today, the museum houses over 7,000 exquisite varieties of dolls brought from all over the world and occupies an area of 5184.5 square feet.
It was a doll gifted by a Hungarian ambassador in the 1950s that inspired Shankar to collect many more from the countries he visited. Interestingly, the idea to display his varied collection came from former prime minister Indira Gandhi. “This museum was started with the founder’s objective to give children and adults an idea of different lands, cultures and their clothing,” said Navin Menon, Editor Publications, Children’s Book Trust.
The museum is divided into two sections with dolls displayed in over 160 glass cases. The entrance leads you to the first that showcases dolls from Europe, the US, Australia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Dolls from Germany that arrived in the 19th century feature dominantly. The oldest one in the museum, of a Swiss woman lying in bed, is from the year 1781.
An observant eye can trace the evolution of clothes, customs and general culture from these little incarnations. Every piece shows us the cultural peculiarity of their country. The array includes goofy German puppet dolls, spirited Spanish flamenco dancers or even outdoorsy Norwegian ones.
The colourful and diverse costumes are a highlight. The metamorphosis from a conservative to liberal dressing styles is noticeable in a collection of Australia’s costumes from 1800 to 1990. The elaborate and aristocratic head accessories worn by these dolls are on display.
The bisque dolls of Japan.Japanese hospitality greets you in the next section, along with dolls from Africa, Asia and different states of India. The heavyweight Japanese Bisque dolls, famous for their realistic features and outlandish backdrops, are pleasant to behold. Indonesian and Thai dolls reflect an Indian cultural influence with Hindu deities.
The rest of the museum is dedicated to colourful dolls representing the culture and people of different Indian states. A number of traditional festivals like the Karvachauth festival in Punjab, regional folk dances (Manipuri Ras, Dandiya, Kathak etc) and several other beautiful scenarios like an elephant procession from Kerala are highlights of this area. Moving head dolls from Tamil Nadu and a step-by-step tutorial of how to drape a saree were other treats.
The importance of community and family in Indian culture is reflected in the concluding sections of the museum with families in regional costumes along with a separate section on the brides of India.
“A lot of dolls from the Indian collection are manufactured by the museum’s workshop, housed in the same building,” Menon told IndianExpress.com. “The family and the bride section are a highly researched and authentic representation of the culture,” she further added.
Doll-making is a versatile art that encompasses several skill sets. Dolls displayed here are of different sizes and made from materials like cotton, wool, wood, plastic, polyester, porcelain, etc.
Two life-sized displays, one depicting the Virgin Mary and St Bernadette and the other housing different characters from Indian daily life stand apart from the quintessential miniature objects of the museum. Watershed moments in history like the Dandi March led by Mahatma Gandhi and the first man on the moon is part of the museum’s holistic experience.
“When dignitaries from different countries visited our museum, they wanted their culture and dolls represented and therefore most dolls here are gifts by former first ladies, ambassadors and queens,” a museum official pointed out.
The installations act like cultural and historical tools demonstrating houses, outdoor activities, ornaments, animals, markets. It was interesting to note the pivotal role played by women in the public sphere historically. Secondly, the acceptance and prevalence of all body shapes in female dolls unlike the obsession with extremely thin “Barbie” figures today.
Navin Menon said: “For us, dolls are little ambassadors of their countries, narrating a story of where they came from” and therefore this sophisticated yet unique experience granted by Shankar’s International Dolls Museum is one to remember.
The writer is an intern with indianexpress.com.