When I think of doll festivals in India, Navarathri golu is the first thing that comes to my mind. When I was a kid I remember my mom dusting off a year’s worth of dust on dolls every year in October. You will find dolls and figurines in different, shapes and color depicting Tamil traditions, culture, festivals, humans, Hindu deities and other celestial beings signifying richness and diversity of life. Then there are Hindu style marriage set, a temple festival set or deities like Astalakshmi (Eight lakshmi) or Arthanariswarar (Part Shiva, Part Parvati). These are some common dolls you will find any house that practice this tradition. Hand-made using paper mache or clay, these dolls are arranged in racks with odd numbered steps like it has to be 3,5 or 7. This festival is dedicated to goddess Durga and is celebrated for nine days in India.
Japan too has similar tradition. Doll making itself is an ancient craft that is still in vogue in the country. Back in ancient times, people collected dolls as they represented wealth. Dolls made today are still largely traditional and are made of wood with fine details. You will find many types of dolls like courtesans, Oiran girls (Geisha like), warriors, emperors, women dressed in kimono and children.
Dolls of emperor, empress and courtesans are used in festival hinamatsuri celebrated in Japan on March 3 of every year by families with daughters. In this 1000-year-old custom, each family sets out hina dolls on display. It is believed in Japan that dolls ward off evil powers and hence pray for their daughter’s’ well being. There is a particular way these dolls are arranged. The first row is occupied by the Emperor and Empress, dressed in imperial family costume. The next row has courtesans and followed by ministers.
The festivals for boys that correspond to Dolls’ Festivals is called Tangi no Sekku (Flag festival) and is held on May 5 every year. Families with sons display sets of miniature armour and figures of costumed warriors and offer prayers for their sons to grow up healthy. This could include a doll of a warrior going to his first battle.
Dolls made from each region in Japan has a unique flavour. For instance, dolls made in Kyoto, which was the ancient capital and city of traditions, usually have lavish embroidery in their costumes. Hakata ningyo are made in a region called Hakata in Kyushu is known for clay dolls. These dolls are have beautiful colours. Kokeshi dolls from Honshu region are known for their simplicity and brilliant colours and are made using wood-turning techniques. They have been produced in northeast regions since the Edo period. The techniques used in the making of these dolls have been handed down from master to pupil till date. Dolls representing many traditional arts like Kabuki and Noh are also very prevalent in Japan.
Japanese traditional craft has been used as a means for establishing friendship between countries. Dolls that realistically depict Japanese children are called Ichimatsu dolls. In 1927, Japan and the US exchanged an Ichimatsu doll as a sign of friendship between two countries.
I got a chance to look at them in an exhibition organised by the Japan Foundation in Chennai. When I was looking at these well-made dolls, it not only gave me a sense of how rich Japan’s traditional arts and crafts are but also how well these are preserved till date. Seeing these dolls, you cannot help but be amazed by their craftsmanship. I was surprised to know that the craft is still handed down from master to pupil in modern times. That is probably one of the reasons why Japan has still managed to retain most of its yesteryear glory and manage to charm people all over the world.
This is unlike India, where traditional arts are dying and there little being done about them. Probably this is something we can learn from Japan.