"Saar, don't mind please, but I am very busy right now", a vendor told me, slightly annoyed, while I was trying to extract answers out of him. My mother wanted to shop for Dasara golu dolls, and I readily tagged along, without a second thought.
I was trying to ask the latest trends, the market for dolls, how they are manufactured and where they come from. While most vendors swat me away or asked to be excused because they were busy, I managed to strike a conversation with a couple of them.
"I don't know whether it is 'Kantara' effect, but Varahi dolls are selling really well this year", a vendor said.
According to him, children have become a part of the decision-making process now when it comes to shopping golu dolls. After watching movies like Kantara, some younger shoppers look at dolls that look vaguely familiar to the characters in the film and insist that their parents buy it for them to be kept on display at home.
Every October, the bylanes of Bengaluru's Malleshwaram turn into a makeshift market, making the streets temporarily inaccessible to the motorists. This rarely bothers the locals, as they are willing to take a slight detour to make way for shoppers ahead of the festival season.
During October, since this is the time Dasara and Deepavali are around the corner, this part of the local economy gets a shot in the arm.
The scenes are almost similar in the other traditional areas of the city, including places like Chamarajapet, Basavanagudi and Jayanagara.
Among all the stalls and the street-hawkers, there is one other business that is booming, especially this year — Dasara golu dolls.
True to Bengaluru's character, many of these makeshift shops, located on footpaths, basements, or mezzanines, are run by Telugu and Tamil entrepreneurs.
Swarajya spoke to the manufacturers, consumers and homemakers who have been following the tradition for a while now.
About Gombe Habba
During Dasara festival, golu, a display of dolls takes place in almost every Hindu household in southern India. It goes by different names from state to state. In Karnataka, it is called Gombe Habba (doll festival), in Tamil Nadu it is known as Bommai golu and Telugu states call it Bommala Koluvu.
The themes on display range from scenes depicted in Hindu texts to special occasions like weddings and even settings like hospitals, kitchens and schools.
The dolls are made either from clay or wood (sometimes even plaster of Paris) and are arranged in a tier format, step-by-step.
Across homes in Bengaluru and Mysuru, it is almost customary to place a replica of the Mysore Palace as a part of the doll collection.
Navratri, which coincides with Mysuru Dasara, honours goddess Chamundeshwari, an avatar of Durga who slayed Mahishasura.
Saiswaroopa Iyer, an author and assistant professor at Chanakya University, says that the Gods manifested Durga, and when they did so, their chaitanya (awareness/consciousness) went to the Devi.
That faculty would only come back to the Gods once Durga returned after slaying the rakshasa. So, when you keep a golu of the Gods at your house, someone from the family has to remain home with them at all times, because it is believed that you should stay by the side of the Gods when their powers are weaker.
For families who keep the golu, at least one new doll is purchased every year.
'Doll Economy Reviving'
During a small tour of the Dasara golu stalls in Bengaluru, many vendors were quoting anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 15,000 for a set of dolls that are available on display for sale.
"These are mostly sourced from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, while some are even sent from Odisha and Bengal", a vendor told Swarajya.
What is interesting is that many of these vendors are IT professionals on a sabbatical. In just about a month's time, they are able to rake in business worth lakhs of rupees.
Reports also suggest that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the sales of these dolls have not decreased drastically. Many vendors have even started exporting these dolls to other countries where there is a significant Hindu population, like Malaysia and Singapore, for example.
Nisha Srikanth, who runs the Chennai-based Sri Kohlapuri doll factory has mentioned that there has been an increase in demand for these dolls during Dasara from states in the south — among which, dolls like Nandini from the movie Ponniyin Selvan is a big hit.
"Ponniyin Selvan was a huge hit. We made some characters like Kundavai and Nandini.", she told Swarajya.
For the first time, she has been asked to make dolls on Swami Ayyappa.
For this, she needs to first design the dolls herself, make a model and then teach her staff how to do it. She says that most of their business is driven by weddings and festivals, as gifting a doll to newly weds is a part of the Hindu custom.
From struggling to learn doll-making, she now runs a school where she teaches people how to make dolls. There is 'Kohlapuri' in her business name because she is a Maharastrian Tamil, and Kolhapur Lakshmi is her kula devi.
'Passed On For Generations'
Prithvi Shastry, a resident of Bengaluru, has been celebrating gombe habba since many years now. From displaying Channapatna toys to Dashavatara-themed dolls made from clay and sandalwood, his family has maintained the tradition for several decades now.
It is not just dolls, but he also has artifacts made from walnuts in Kashmir, bamboo toys from the northeast and conch from Port Blair. During their travel abroad, his family have picked up relevant dolls from Europe, North America, and Africa too.
Another resident, Uma Maheshwari has decorated her house with Ashta Lakshmi and Andal dolls that she bought locally and from places like Puri Jagannath.
Local vendors in Bengaluru also suggest that the demand for Varahi dolls has increased this time around.
Varahi is the female form of Varaha, an avatar of Vishnu.
Sharmila Arun Kumar, a homemaker from Bengaluru has been keeping Dasara golu dolls for the last two decades. From having Pattada Bombe made of wood, she has displayed several themes this year around.
"It takes weeks of preparation for this. I need to shop in advance because at the last moment, the prices get inflated. We need to prepare the gallery-like structure with wood where the dolls will be on display, and also search for dolls after conceptualising the theme that we want to display every year. It is a time-consuming process, but I do it with a lot of passion every year", she tells Swarajya.
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