Meriye ni maaye, meri dilan diye meharmey; Puch meri mutthi vich ki? Guddiyan patoleyan ki khed uttey kadey kadey, hassa jeha aaya ni; Chaudhan din poore hunde chand ke aakar nu main, nitt vehendi rehni hai ni maayein… Gith gith lallian kanware angan utte, ayeean kothe jiddi ho gayee teri dhee (My dear mother, guess what’s there in my hand. I love playing with dolls and it brings a smile on my face. I keep looking at changing the shape of the moon. But now your daughter has grown up).
Sung in rural households in Punjab, the folk song speaks about sentiments that are perhaps universal. Across countries and cultures, dolls are an indispensable part of childhood. Not mere playthings, one often builds an emotional bond with their dolls. Once upon a time, dolls were hand-stitched in Punjab. Mothers would decorate them for their daughters with ornaments, paranda in the braid and jutti on the feet.
Called guddiyan patoley, the tradition is now almost dead, but for a handful women who are trying to keep it alive. Among them is Davinder Kaur Dhatt. An assistant professor in fine arts at GHG Khalsa College, Gurusar Sudhar, Ludhiana, she is planning an exhibition of her collection of over 60 handmade Punjabi traditional dolls.
A quick visit to her house introduces us to a range of dolls that include a glowing bride, Punjabi woman spinning charkha, two women playing dholak and another spinning madaani (churning butter). If one doll is seen admiring herself in the mirror, another is doing giddha. The labour and minute detailing that has gone into making them is evident. The 53-year-old shares how some of them took over a month to complete and it took her over two years to build the collection.
“Though I have been making dolls since I was ten, the skill improved as I kept practising. My mother taught me the art of doll making. For me, dolls are not just lifeless objects put together using different materials, they are instead living women whose faces should express the emotions inside them. Before starting work on each one, I first think of their emotions and the the right way to depict them. Before the technical process, is the emotional one,” says Dhatt. She adds, “I have nurtured them for years. Hours and hours of hard work has gone into making each one of them,” says Dhatt.
She even gives each doll a name. We are introduced to Sharmila, Punjabo, Simmo, Soni with her Mahiwal and Meera, singing for Krishna. “In Patiala, I made Radha-Krishna and donated the figures to a temple. I can never put a monetary value to my art. They are not for sale,” says Dhatt, a double post graduate (in fine arts and folk art and culture) from Punjabi University, Patiala. She also holds a PhD in fine arts and completed a one-year training course in doll making from the small scale industry department of Punjab government.
After giving nearly 40 years of her life to the art of doll making, Dhatt credits her husband Jasmer Singh Dhatt for helping her with the work and encouraging her to organise an exhibition. “From collecting materials to stitching and everything else, he always helps me. He is equally passionate about this art,” she adds.
Explaining the technical process, Dhatt says that first comes the face of a doll, which is made using clay. A shape is given to features such as eyes, nose and lips. “One clay, the mould is done and hardened into fiber using a special rubber and two chemicals. The lower body, legs, feet, hands and arms are all made separately, using cotton and wires, and then stitched together. Then hair, clothes, ornaments and accessories are added,” says Dhatt. She even stitches the clothes of the dolls herself.
Twenty of the dolls measure 15 inches and 40 of them are three and a half feet tall. “Everything is customised — their clothes, accessories and ornaments. There is no compromise on quality. From Canada to Delhi, we have shopped from everywhere to decorate them. Small ones cost Rs 500-1,000 and the big ones Rs 5,000 to 10,000, but sometimes the accessories are costly. We never think before spending on them,” says Jasmer, a retired vigilance official. Davinder adds, “I just want the government to help us in setting up a dolls museum to promote this Punjabi heritage and not let the art die. I am not doing this for money. My dolls are like living beings for me.”
The collection of dolls will be on display in Chandigarh from July 19 to 22 at an exhibition being organised by Punjab Kala Parishad at Punjab Kala Bhawan.