Their elegance and delicate features will leave you spellbound. They remain every girl’s playmate, and here in Delhi, they became one man’s hobby. Ashis Dutta explores these magnificent dolls at the International Dolls Museum.
Ursula was sitting on her drawing room sofa, looking up at me, as I entered the hall. She would have greeted me ‘Guten Tag’, if only she could speak. For, Ursula is a doll. A doll from Germany. Sitting pretty among 6,500 other dolls from all over the world. I was at the International Dolls Museum in New Delhi, a one-of-a-kind place in the country.
It all started with an elderly man who refused to give up his childhood. Shankar Pillai was already the most celebrated cartoonist of his time, and his political jibes were legendary. Refusing to sit on his laurels, Pillai established Children’s Book Trust, an iconic initiative for children’s literature. He would have been remembered for centuries for any of these achievements. But one fine day in the 1950s, the Hungarian Ambassador presented him with a doll — a lady in the traditional Hungarian peasant’s costume. Pillai fell in love with the doll and set out on his third marathon — collecting dolls from all the corners of the globe.
Anatomy of the museum
Shankar’s International Dolls Museum, as it is called, is spread in two sections of a single floor. While the first section is mostly Occidental, the second one exudes the lure of the Orient, including a large part covering the different ethnic regions of India. Each glass chamber, and there are about 160 of them in all, houses dolls from a country or a region.
Right past the glass door of the entrance and I had stepped into the transformative period in the history of Central Europe. The Czech dolls would start moving and talking any time, I thought. And if it was difficult to tear away from Ursula’s charm, the English family around the fireplace invited me to partake in their tea-time ritual. And from the industrial revolution era of England, I did not know when I had swanned into Celtic epoch. Each doll is immaculate in attire, the intricate lace frills of the old Dutch lady, the dark checks of the Scot’s kilt, perfect to the last button, or the elaborate hat of the nose-up French aristocrat, ready for her evening of social hobnobbing.
The young village lady from Poland may not be talking from inside the glass chamber, but was far from being taciturn by any measure. She narrates through her bearing, the saga of a culture, chronicles the history of her people. The Flamenco dancers from Spain in their resplendent dress would step out any time and even in the silence of the museum I could hear the rhythmic strumming of the guitar playing naughty around the tapping of their feet on the wooden dance floor. Little wonder then that visitors are reluctant to move away from them, and I had to be tactically pushy with a sticky family to get my way through to be in front of the dancers.
Origins of the dolls
Where did all the dolls come from, I wondered. Well, some of them have pedigrees to cause a snooty socialite go green with envy. There are dolls gifted by Madame Tito, the first lady of Yugoslavia, Queen Frederika of Greece, wives of the presidents of Indonesia and Mexico, and the sister of the Shah of Iran. And then Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi added to Pillai’s collection from their trips abroad. In fact, it was India Gandhi who took the initiative to set up the museum in 1965 to house Pillai’s burgeoning family of dolls and preserve them for generations to come. The museum was inaugurated by the then President Dr S Radhakrishnan.
I crossed continents and drifted from the Occidental into the Asian collection. A couple from the Bramhaputra Valley in their wedding attire greeted me along with their Naga brethren. I came to know of the distinct cultural identities of Khasi, Garo and Jaintias of the state of Meghalaya. The Zen-like simplicity and elegance of the Kabuki dancers from Japan are breathtaking. The sophistication of their minimalism exudes a philosophy deeply ingrained in the ancient culture of that super-island country.
A doll no longer remains an object of a child’s play, but transcends to a cultural statement representing a people, a time, an outlook of life. I stepped out of the museum as a world citizen, with the soul of a child enamoured by dolls.