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Navratri Brings Hope For Tamil Nadu's Golu Doll Makers Struggling to Survive

COVID pushed the state's traditional golu doll makers to take huge loans, pledge jewels as their business plummeted.

Updated
Tamil Nadu
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>The business of traditional Golu doll artisans came to a standstill soon after the coronavirus struck in 2020.</p></div>
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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.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Golu dolls kept for sale at Mylapore.</p></div>

Golu dolls kept for sale at Mylapore.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

They could be thematic or based on stories from religious texts or simply scenes depicting day-to-day life.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Miniature kitchen utensils on sale at Mylapore Golu market</p></div>

Miniature kitchen utensils on sale at Mylapore Golu market

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Santhi, a traditional Golu doll artisan, at work at Asthagiri Street.</p></div>

Santhi, a traditional Golu doll artisan, at work at Asthagiri Street.

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Dolls kept outside Santhi's house for drying</p></div>

Dolls kept outside Santhi's house for drying

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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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.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Doll maker Suresh giving finishing touches to Vinayaka doll.</p></div>

Doll maker Suresh giving finishing touches to Vinayaka doll.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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."

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Doll maker Suresh shows his newly introduced doll of goddess<em> Neela Dhakshayini.</em></p></div>

Doll maker Suresh shows his newly introduced doll of goddess Neela Dhakshayini.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

"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."
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Traditional Golu artisan Kannan at work.</p></div>

Traditional Golu artisan Kannan at work.

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>A traditional Golu doll maker at work </p></div>

A traditional Golu doll maker at work

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Doll maker Sivashankari shows a doll kept at their house.</p></div>

Doll maker Sivashankari shows a doll kept at their house.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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.
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<div class="paragraphs"><p>Artisans at work at doll maker Suresh's house.</p></div>

Artisans at work at doll maker Suresh's house.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Dolls of lord Athi Varadar stacked at Suresh's house.</p></div>

Dolls of lord Athi Varadar stacked at Suresh's house.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

'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.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Doll maker Rukmangadan at work.</p></div>

Doll maker Rukmangadan at work.

(Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

"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
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Doll maker Rukmangadan shows idol of goddess Durga</p></div>

Doll maker Rukmangadan shows idol of goddess Durga

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Doll maker Rukmangadan's son Chandru at work.</p></div>

Doll maker Rukmangadan's son Chandru at work.

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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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."
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Thanjavur Thalayatti bommais kept for sale at Chennai's Mylapore.</p></div>

Thanjavur Thalayatti bommais kept for sale at Chennai's Mylapore.

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A shopper in Chennai's Mylapore makes video call to her daughter to show her Golu dolls.</p></div>

A shopper in Chennai's Mylapore makes video call to her daughter to show her Golu dolls.

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ/The Quint)

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