Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Miniature Societies and Grihani Aesthetics

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Annapurna Garimella

Smitha, an entrepreneur from Basavanagudi, says she has been adding new dolls to her collection every year. This year too, she has come out with a new theme to give a new dimension to the display… She has a doll house which is designed by an artisan. It is a miniature form of a modern house. She feels children can easily relate to it. Besides, her doll display showcases themes like the 'kirana store' (provision store) to give an idea to children how shops were many years ago. The best attraction is a model railway station and a beauty pageant. "Nadahabba [state festival] from Friday", Deccan Herald. http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Oct122007/state2007101230104.asp

The festival is typically enjoyed the most by girl children and women, as they get an excuse to deck up each day in silks, wear jewellery and go around the neighbourhood, collecting sundals, inviting neighbours, singing songs and dancing.

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Many urbanized, upper caste-class Hindu households in Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and people from these communities living abroad display dolls (Tamil: kolu, Kannada: golu, Telugu: koluvu) during the ten-day Dasara festival (Fig. 1). Women and girl children make them using wooden, clay, glass, ceramic, papier maché mud and plastic dolls or with images made at home by 
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skills learned in hobby art classes. These
displays can be small or can include as many as 400 dolls.

The displays begin with flat or tiered platforms covered with a white sheet or a light-coloured silk sari. Much like a contemporary art gallery, women favour a light background since it showcases the objects. The tiers take the form of a historical building such as the Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi, the Mysore palace or a temple chariot. Women strive to demonstrate their creativity, applying techniques from store design or theme parks to heighten the theatricality of the display.

In History: Dasara and Display

The practice of Dasara displays evolved and became consolidated at different places and moments. During the Vijayanagara period (ca. 1335-1565 CE), Dasara festivities seem to have been an opportunity for remaking the kingdom’s order with grand displays of power, wealth and art. One traveler’s account of a Dasara in Hampi allows us to imagine how tiered structures, such as the Mahanavami Dibba, were the setting for tableaux vivants.  Divinities, allies, officers, forms of weaponry and warfare and art forms were grouped and structured in a hierarchy that placed the Vijayanagara ruler and his gods at the top. Through the Nayaka period (1600-1800 CE), the Dasara display continued in regional courts, as historical accounts from Tanjore, Ramnad and Madurai inform us. Nayaka kings used Dasara to show connection with the glory of Hampi by establishing the ritual in their courts. Gradually as many other social arrangements were realigned in colonial India and new elites emerged in both in interior royal capitals and coastal emporia, Dasara display must have entered the homes of upper caste groups as a marker of high culture.
The colonial Mysore state exemplifies continuities with the past and creation of new political and visual regimes. Public Dasara festivities included wrestling or kusti, elephant fights, bharata natyam, grand processions and doll displays, all conducted under the watchful gaze of gods, kings and colonial authorities. The murals in the Kalyana Mandapa in Amba Vilas, the Mysore’s city palace painted in the mid-twentieth century function as a kind of Dasara doll display in which Mysore is presented as the model state deserving civic pride and feudal loyalty. The artist shows citizens and guests from different communities and religions, European and Indian, observing the pageant of musicians, decorated animals, bureaucrats and officials, religious leaders and military bands. Throughout each neighborhood are groups of people standing near a garlanded painting of the Mysore king, dressed in a sherwani, turban and modestly ornamented. This civic utsava presents the king as an ideal leader whose presence is firmly desired in the streets by the people who in turn organize themselves to allow him to experience the order, wealth and integration of the city. Mysore appears as very wide, even transnational space, with Shell, Lipton and foreign missionaries all prominently portrayed. The bodily experience of the viewer mimics the experience of walking in the parade and the spectator almost automatically begins to seek familiar images or places in Mysore. The murals are rendered to cultivate nostalgia in their viewers; their textured, realist style is mediated by photography, specifically of well-known events such as the Delhi Durbar of 1911 and by popular styles, especially calendar art.
The royal durbar and procession, with its pomp, exoticism, political authority, religiosity and everyday civic life is the most prominent inspiration behind the creation of domestic Dasara displays across southern India.

See Domingo Paes’ narrative in The Vijayanagara Empire, Chronicles of Paes and Nuniz. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1991.

The objects are a combination of older dolls (Fig. 2), such as those given to a bride by her mother or mother-in-law and new ones, along with
acquisitions purchased on a recent trip abroad or some new silver objects obtained over summer vacation in India
(Fig.3). Figures of divinities are placed on top (Fig. 4), in the middle tiers important secular symbols and below are scenes of work and play (Fig. 5). Potters and other doll-makers keep cosmological and caste/class hierarchies intact as they make these dolls, perhaps
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aware that buyer while seeking innovation do not want to challenge social codes. For instance, in one Ramayana scene image dating from circa 1950
(Fig. 6), Guhan the boatman is differentiated from Rama, Sita and Lakshmana by his dark skin while Rama’s divinity is highlighted with green.

Till about twenty years ago, potters who make most of these dolls had a fixed repertoire of images including deities,
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mythological scenes, buildings, national leaders like Gandhi,Nehru and M.G. Ramachandran and figures such as the Buddha, Mirabai and the Air India Maharajah
(Fig. 7). But like other Indian artists, doll-makers too have expanded their repertoire. They now include entire cricket teams, all-girl marching bands, and scenes from Hindu rituals, distinctive temple urbanscapes, Ganeshas using cell phones and computers (Fig. 8). Artisans are expanding their range, using brighter colours with a glossier finish to suit urban women who seek more industrialized (polished) finishes and globalized (novel) imagery. And in the last five years, buyers also are more consistently seeking to build their collection of dolls from other parts of India and the world to make ever more inventive arrangements. Rich households even hire fine arts students to do scenography for the displays. In many cities, competitions and prizes for the best Dasara exhibit have become part of the festivities.

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It is when the doll displays go public and it becomes part of community relations’ exercises or internet-based socializing that specific political concerns or ideological issues become highlighted. Temples, municipal transport organizations and even women empowerment groups turn the Dasara display into an opportunity to promote issues like women’s rights, self-employment schemes, traffic rules or environmental concerns. Perhaps, the manageable scale of the Dasara doll event provides the ideal space for activism, which can be successful in this limited sphere.

It is during this moment of making the domestic public that women-centric devotionalism and consumersim of the Dasara display faces questioning. One website declares that raising women’s consciousness is the purpose behind the display and surrounding festivities:

the whole essence of the navaraathri celebration is to remind all the women that they are the guardians of the family, culture and national integrity, to take lead in times of crisis to guide the humanity towards the path of social justice, righteousness, equality, love, and divinity.

Yet the author adds a disclaimer about the possibility of empowerment by adding:

All that is fine but to what extent that gets translated into real power is questionable because today’s women do not have the weapons that was generously conferred on the Devi but they have do only with their inner strength which can turn them into weapons themselves. It is on such occasions like Dasara that symbolically encourages women to worship the Devi and have fun and also get empowered and become the Shakti themselves. http://www.indiavarta.com/womanslife/news.asp?topic=346&Title=Trends&ID=IE_20051004060851&nDate=10/4/2005


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