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Dolls speak out...

Dec 9, 2012 :
Spellbinding: Bosteels’ dolls with a message.

Francoise Bosteels’ dolls lend expression to complex realities of the Indian social milieu, writes M A Siraj, after visiting the Belgian doll maker’s exhibition.

Could the dolls speak? Of course, no, unless their creator is Francoise Bosteel, the Belgian nurse working in Bangalore. The hands that cared, massaged, applied balms and dressed the wounds during the day for decades, were not at rest during the night either.

They wove, knitted, designed and fashioned dolls that could communicate and evoke pathos. Objects of display rather than play, Bosteel’s dolls capture the life, mainly in rural India, in its myriad forms and colours, modes and moods, tones and hues, and styles and patterns. Carrying a world of ideas, they could convey what the human tongues and lingos failed to express.


Giving expression to a wide variety of themes ranging from dowry-led suicides to the woe-filled life of a rag picker, her dolls — 300 so far — speak for the interconnectedness of life’s disciplines. With faces left blank, they speak through body language.

Bosteel says, “Sensory organs could have created facial expressions. But I wanted my dolls to personify the joys and miseries, tensions and jubilation of life.” Lo and behold! Bosteel’s dolls are faceless, without those dilated pupils as we are wont to see, and they speak more eloquently than the new age talking Barbies.

Bosteel’s dolls encourage the onlookers to reflect critically on complex social realities that surround the Indian society, mainly the female component of it. By presenting a range of scenarios and problems, they open up a world of possibilities and enable one to imagine what it might be like to live through situations that one does not personally experience.

Early fascination

Bosteel, now 70, came to India 38 years ago as a young nurse of the Catholic Order to work in Kanyakumari district. Says Bosteel, “Village life was bewitching. Women at the well, female construction labourers balancing bricks overhead and a child on the waist, women sowing paddy in ankle-deep water in farms, women tea pickers with kids tied in the front and the large tea basket behind, flower seller on a bicycle or the tribal women plucking fruits in jungles, were images that both celebrated life as well as reflected the doomed predicament of womanhood — burdened, bruised and broken, their tragedies knew no end.”

Bosteel had learnt making dolls from her mom while growing up at home. While engaged in imparting holistic health education in Tamil Nadu’s villages, she began to transmute the images imbibed during the day into dolls during nights. ‘Women at the well’ was the first to take shape. Then there were dolls that conveyed untold stories of life. Take a close look at the farmer lying stretched on the cart with one foot resting on the other and the cart being pulled by the woman while returning from the market after selling her harvest. It could easily be captioned: ‘My burdens do not bother him. He is my man, he thinks he is my owner’. Yet another doll hugging a tree represents Chipko movement in which women played a dominant role.

Wide range

But she did not limit herself to women, who of course were her major concern, given the traditional girl-doll emotional ties. Her canvas was wider, portraying the ‘other India’, the India of the excluded, the downtrodden, the despised, the marginalised. The deeper awareness that she seeks to evoke challenges us to intervene and make a difference to the lives that we in most cases fail to recognise in our rush for globalisation, glamorisation of the fairer sex, and elitism of the super rich.

So Bosteel, who held the exhibition of her dolls in Bangalore recently, told this scribe, “The exhibition is an invitation to a commitment to work for a more humane society whether it is for peace, equality, dignity or prosperity. These dolls urge us to join the masses in their struggle to change what hurts the wholeness of the human family,” she adds.

Bosteel’s dolls are made of a variety of material like felt cloth, compact paper bowl for head, flexible wire for skeleton, wool, surgical cotton, banana and coconut fibre and palm leaves. They are never taller than six inches. If the representation is that of a group of dolls, the scale is limited to 18x6 inches. Use of tiny sewing machines, hand pumps, cane crusher, iron trolley, or bicycle adds a touch of reality to the situation.

Her dolls probe unlit corners of life, highlight infirmities, detestable absurdities, fearsome dichotomies and disparities of human society. They seek to investigate and interrogate concepts as profound as formation of gender identity, women as object of violence and victims of environmental disasters.

One could therefore question, “Is she not employing dolls for too complex roles?” The answer is a firm ‘no’. Dolls have served not merely as playthings. They have often been substitutes for the absence of children in peasant and agrarian societies. Similarly, they have been used to express and model modern ideals. Bosteel has used them primarily as a means of artistic expression and communication targeted at ripening social concerns into commitments. Nothing less, nothing more.

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