Kerala’s famed doll, Chekutty, which emerged as the symbol of hope amid the floods in August, now has a friend — Bhoomika, which came into being just a month ago. Together, the two are helping rebuild many lives in the aftermath of the natural disaster that almost broke Kerala but couldn’t destroy its spirit and resilience. Among those who suffered, were the weavers, who lost not just their belongings, stock and raw material, but also their livelihood as many weaving units were washed away. While Chekutty is already going places, finding fans in the US, Singapore and Malaysia, Bhoomika has also started finding her feet.
During the floods, Gopinath Parayil, who runs a travel company in Kerala, was involved in the rescue operations in Chendamangalam. Once the water receded, he visited the weavers in the area where he would earlier bring his guests for a visit. Upon realising that they needed urgent help, Gopinath discussed the problem with Lakshmi Menon, founder of Pure Living, a Cochin-based organisation that upcycles waste material. And Chekutty was born. It stands for ‘Chendamangalam Kutty’ (a small girl).
“We have upcycled the fabric to make these dolls. The money we get from the sale of these dolls goes to the Chendamangalam Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative society,” says Gopinath. Menon explains that around 300 dolls can be made from a sari. “A sari would generally fetch the weavers Rs 1,300. If we can make 300 dolls from one sari, with each doll costing Rs 25, the value of the sari goes up to Rs 8,000,” she adds.
On the fourth day of its launch, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan came forward to support the initiative. “Chekutty, the child who overcame the floods. This doll is turning out to be the symbol of a Kerala that overpowered the crisis,” the CM said in his post on Facebook. This intervention helped spread the word about the initiative, which has now turned into a volunteer-driven programme, with bulk orders coming in from the Malayali community in the US, Australia and Singapore.
Menon says that they have marketed the dolls not as a product, since they are so imperfect, but as a concept — symbols of spirit of resilience and unity in the state. “The weavers have incurred losses worth Rs 21 lakh. We have assured them Rs 25 lakh worth of Chekutty sales, out of which Rs 15 lakh has been collected already. Federal Bank has come forward to commit the rest,” she says, adding that “the key is to ensure that the weavers earn with dignity and not depend on any charity.”
It was in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami in Tamil Nadu that the miniature Tsunamika dolls came into being, helping the ravaged fishing community in the state recover. Eleven years later, its peers Chekutty and Bhoomika are helping rehabilitation efforts in Kerala as the state struggles to get back on its feet. While Chekutty is sold for Rs 25 each, Bhoomika is priced at Rs 201 a piece. Chekutty is made of cloth damaged in the floods, whereas Bhoomika is fashioned from fabric waste sourced from designers, weavers and even tailors. Incidentally, Bhoomika’s fans include Bollywood actors Katrina Kaif and Siddharth Malhotra, both of whom have taken one home.
Sobha Vishwanath, a Kochi-based designer who runs an organisation called Weavers Village in Thiruvananthapuram, is the brain behind Bhoomika, along with her teammate Deepak Shivraj, a graphic designer. “Bhoomika is the daughter of mother earth. Floods happened because we exploited mother earth,” she says. “The doll has no lips as that was the time all of us were rendered speechless. No one knew what to say. But her big red bindi represents hope. Bhoomika is about ‘Rebuilding Sustainable Keralam’,” adds Vishwanath.
She says Bhoomika also gives a message to care for the planet and sustainable energy, and rides on a handmade boat as a tribute to the fishermen and their boats who rescued thousands marooned during the floods. While half of the proceeds will go back to the weavers who created it, the other half is being put in a fund to help sustainable practices in the state. Currently,
50 women are engaged in making the dolls, but Vishwanath says that the vision is long-term. “We are roping in women from remote tribal areas, Mahila Mandiram (a home for the mentally challenged), prisons and old age homes, along with the weavers to make Bhoomika on a bigger scale and sell it to support their lives,” she says.
On how long will the Chekutty be made, Menon says, “Chekutty is going to be a souvenir endorsed by the state government and will be made available at airports and government outlets.” Once they run out of soiled cloth, they will get fresh cloth to create Chekutty so that the dolls become a source of supplementary income for the weavers. Even Bhoomika is here to stay. “As of now, people can buy the doll online but we are also tying up with private stores and coffee shops in Kerala,” says Vishwanath, adding, “It embodies the message of clean water, green energy and making women self-sufficient.”