Nagamani’s Navaratri Gombae – A Wonderland Of Dolls
Nagamani Rao is in her 70s but her childhood love for dolls remains undiminished. Her Navaratri Gombae had us mesmerised. Here’s how she does it.
Little girls live and breathe dolls till their age reaches the double digits; they usually forget all about them as they step into adulthood. Seldom would one find a girl whose love for dolls followed her well into her womanhood and is still around when she is in her 70s. Meet Nagamani Rao, whose heart is still a home to dolls and so is her residence in Vidyaranyapura, Bangalore.
I met Nagamani as I was invited by a dear friend, her son, to see the Navaratri Gombae display (traditional display of dolls in South Indian homes during Navaratri) at his home. Come see the dolls, is all my friend had said. Little did I know what was in store for me and my daughter because stepping into Nagamani’s home was like entering a fairy tale land. On one side of the living room was the traditional display of dolls on seven steps, while at the other end of the hall was the gateway to a magical land.
A land that had plush green forests on one end, complete with its wild life and tribal folks; an arch (handmade) leading to the forest; a pond (handmade again) with flamingo, ducks and geese; a waterfall with croaking frogs and chirping birds; a farm land tilled by farmers.
On the other end on display was a modern city with beautiful homes and its many doll people, roads with toy cars and a train track with toy rail cars. Dolls from all over the globe – Japan, Singapore and Australia among others, were delicately set on sand that had travelled in a bottle all the way from Dubai with her son. The forest too had a global touch with rocks from the land of Tibet and volcanic rocks from Japan. It was just the right stage to unfold Nagamani’s passion for dolls in full glory. A passion that is supported fully by her husband and sons, for over 35 years now.
Nagamani got introduced to the tradition of Navaratri Gombae as a little girl, when she would help her mother set it up every year. Post marriage, Nagamani travelled across the globe with her husband, sometimes carrying forward the tradition and sometimes not. However, that did not diminish her penchant for dolls as she picked up dolls for her collection, wherever she went. While in Japan she even learnt making dresses for Japanese dolls and has many dolls from Japan looking resplendent in their fine kimonos designed and made by Nagamani herself, adorning every nook and corner of her home. In Australia she learnt how to make porcelain dolls. Does she make Indian dolls too; I wonder? “Oh! I want to,” pat comes the reply “but I haven’t been able to find a teacher to teach me the same.”
Every year, the septuagenarian starts setting up her dolls very painstakingly, at least 10-15 days before the start of the Navaratri festival and keeps them on display well beyond the official closure of the festival, as she has visitors making a beeline every year to see the display. “I now take help from my sister to help set up,” says Nagamani. How long does it take her to wind up? “Two days, that’s all!”
As I move from doll to doll, I am reminded of my favourite museum in Delhi, the Doll Museum and I realise Nagamani’s home is a miniature doll museum in itself. I spot a doll that seems to have a special place for herself. Nagamani says, “This is a doll from my childhood that my mother gave to me. This year I wanted to dress her up in a sari but I didn’t find the time to make one.” And just like that I catch a glimpse of the little girl she once was, madly and deeply in love with dolls.
As I say my goodbyes, I realise my photographs will not do justice to Nagamani’s beautiful Navaratri Gombae. I thank my stars and my friend for allowing me to visit their home on the very last day of the display, for a year would have been too long a wait. I will surely be back again next year to see Nagamani and her beautiful world of dolls.
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