Crammed in between figurines of popular manga heroes like Doraemon, Nobita Nobi and a baby Krishna, Jayalalithaa stands tall, clad in her favourite green sari, wearing a soft expression.
The clay and papier mâché dolls of Tamil Nadu’s late chief minister are a major attraction among the Bommai Kolu collectables in Mylapore this Navratri festival. The North Mada street in Mylapore is chock-full of small figurines, like the Choppu Jaman or miniature kitchen sets, and large ones like the Ramayana set, in assorted forms and colours. But the Jayalalithaa doll or the Amma bommai, as it is referred to by the shopkeepers, is this season’s hit.
“Every Navratri, there is something new to look forward to in golu dolls, and this time it was the muthalamaichar, or chief minister doll,” said S Bhasumoni of Preethi Handicrafts. “They were the fastest-moving of the lot and since we are a permanent store, the dolls were sold out a more than month ago.” Bhasumoni is one of the few handicraft retailers on the street, which is otherwise packed with pop-up street vendors who sell their wares seasonally.
The Jayalalithaa figurines are hard to spot amid the street’s bustle, but some vendors call out for potential customers with their new merchandise. In Meena’s tiny street-side shop, the Jayalaithaa doll dominates its divine counterparts. Meena, who has been setting up her shop on the North Mada street regularly for the past 25 years, politely shook her head when a customer asked her for dolls of Lord Krishna. She tried instead to turn people’s attention to figurines of the late Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam and Jayalalithaa. “Since both of them passed away recently, these dolls are the new favourites,” she said. “But like it is with any new golu trend, the Jaya dolls will have become common next year.”
The dolls are available in different colours, sizes and material, but all of the late icon’s figures have a few things in common: her greying hair is tied in a bun and she is clad in green and purple saris. The large-sized dolls in papier mâché are priced upwards of Rs 900, while the smaller clay ones are priced between Rs 200 and Rs 500. “The papier mâché dolls are priced on the more expensive side because of their light weight. They can be transported more easily,” Loganathan, another figurine-seller explained. “Ninety five per cent of the customers prefer clay dolls because they are cheaper.”
The sellers said the Amma models were not suggested by any political party. “Like any other doll, these ones too are from districts like Kanjeepuram, Cuddalore, Panrotti, Vellore, and some from Pondicherry and Calcutta,” said Ashok Kumar, who stood standing beside his array of Jaya dolls.
Deities and caricatures
The other seasonal favourite, coming a close second to Jayalalitha dolls, are figures of popular cartoon characters. If last year’s collection was overshadowed by the Chhota Bheem figurines, this time Doraemon, the Amul girl and Motu Patlu are everywhere. Made mostly out of clay, these dolls are designed to attract children.
Karthik’s push cart also included novelty items like terracotta-made elephant stools and orchestra show pieces, which might not essentially constitute the traditional bommai golu.
“Even for someone who has been keeping golu for years together, it is usually tradition to buy at least one new doll every season,” said Saroja, another doll-seller. “A lot of age-old customers look for something unique amongst the deity sets.”
Keeping this in mind, Jayaganesh, a street vendor who specialises in expensive papier mâché dolls, said he preferred to stick to gods and goddesses. “We don’t sells those kind of dolls in our shop,” he said, referring to figures inspired by cartoons and politics. His shop’s new piece for the season is Sammohana Krishna, a form that sees both Krishna and Radha merged together.
Triplicane, a major market in Chennai that is home to an iconic Bommai Chattram or house of dolls, brims with spectacular dolls every season. With minute detail and rare form, the collection here is every golu aficionado’s go-to spot, and has been so for the past 65 years. The sprawling market is home to figurines ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 25,000. Lakshmi, a representative at a shop in the market, said the Ramayan set was their highlight for the season.
“You won’t get a finish like this anywhere else, these dolls are made in Chennai,” she said. “The features on the dolls are etched to perfection and the price differs based on the painting.” Here too though, the Jayalalithaa dolls were the first to sell out.
The late leader’s staunch loyalists however, are not impressed. “I will never put a Jayalalithaa doll up for sale,” Raj, a doll-seller fumed. “She was in such a huge post and took care of so many of us in the state. Imagine people bargaining for Jayalalithaa amma’s dolls for money. Out of the respect I have for her, I will not sell her dolls no matter how profitable they seem to be.” Instead, his shop is selling a new entrant this year – Saradha or Goddess Saraswati, who bears a luminous green skin tone.