Every Navratri, the traditional Golu doll makers in Tamil Nadu's Chinna Kanchipuram are a busy lot. They are inundated with orders from not only across Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, but also the US and Malaysia.
Traders visit Chinna Kanchipuram to buy these dolls in bulk and sell them in their respective states during the nine-day festival.
Practised traditionally by Hindu families of the state during Navratri, Golu is a festive display of dolls, mostly of gods and goddesses.
They could be thematic or based on stories from religious texts or simply scenes depicting day-to-day life.
Like everything else, the pandemic changed the lives of the artisans. Since March 2020, families who have been engaged in this business for 80-odd years, were left without any income, they tell The Quint.
With repeated lockdowns and restrictions on celebrating festivals, the doll makers lost not only their international customers, but also the intra-state and even local ones.
'Had to Take Loans, Pledge Jewels to Survive the Pandemic'
"We have had no sales since the COVID spread began. I had to take loans from private parties and pledge all the jewels I had to make a living," N Suresh, a third-generation Golu doll maker, told The Quint as he gave finishing touches to a Ganesha doll in his verandah.
The 52-year-old now has loans that run into lakhs.
As he ran out of business, interests on his loans have piled up, he said. "I'm not sure how I will repay them."
"Even local sellers from Tamil Nadu, who buy dolls from us every year, have not turned up since the pandemic happened," Suresh said. "Perhaps, they too have not been able to sell dolls bought before 2020."
Artisans Hopeful As Business Is Slowly Reviving
But the artisans are hopeful now, for their business has begun reviving, slowly.
"Unlike last Navratri, this time, we have got a few orders from our customers in the US. But sales are nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels," Suresh said.
Suresh learnt the art from his father and has been in the doll-making business for the last 20 years. His entire family, including his wife S Sivashankari, his MBA-graduate son and his college-going daughter, are involved in the business.
They make dolls throughout the whole year – worth Rs 6-7 lakh – and store them on the terrace that has been converted into a warehouse. Just before Navratri, all the dolls are brought and arranged inside the house for customers to shop. By the end of the festive season, the dolls are usually fully sold out.
'Stressing Over My Dwindling Business Gave Me a Heart Attack'
On the same street, MV Rukmangadan, a Golu doll artist, was busy painting the doll of a goddess. Unlike Suresh, this 52-year-old was the first to pick this profession in his family.
Rukmangadan learnt the skill of doll making from a neighbour at 13, and has been engaged in the business ever since.
"Last year was very stressful. The 'tension' of not getting any orders gave me a heart attack. Doctors have advised me to not stress over the business. But how can I not? I have a wife, and four children to feed."Rukmangadan
Although Rukmadangan's elder son works at a courier service, his monthly income of Rs 10,000 isn't enough to meet the family's needs, he said.
"I have to somehow make money to pay college fees for my son and arrange for a marriage for my daughter," he said.
As Golu dolls are usually sold around temples, the closure of temples in the weekends too has directly affected sales for the artisans.
Just 20 percent customers shop on weekdays, Padmanaban, another artisan, said. "Scores of office-goers plan Golu shopping and temple visits only during weekends."