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How Karuna dolls are making a difference

The pan-India doll-making collective helps women artisans earn a living and protect their craft

Veeranvali and Jugni represent traditional and contemporary Punjab respectively
Veeranvali and Jugni represent traditional and contemporary Punjab respectively (Karuna Dolls)

Dolls can be a representation of the times, the struggles of the people,” says K.P. Lakshmi Ahuja of Creative Dignity (CD), a pan-India collective that has been helping artisan communities deal with the impact of covid-19. “That is what gave us the idea of starting Karuna dolls,” she says, referring to the nationwide doll-making initiative CD launched last year, to help craftswomen through the pandemic.

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Every Karuna doll has some element of the state in which it is made. For instance, Miss Karuna from Andhra Pradesh has a crocheted lace skirt made in Narsapur, famed for its lace industry. The Bihar doll has sujani embroidery; Karuna Kerala represents a Kathakali dancer; the Uttarakhand doll, Sureeli, is made from a local grass called bhimal; and Karuna Madhya Pradesh—aka Narmada Dadi—wears Maheshwari fabric and carries a book of stories illustrated by a Gond artist.

The dolls, made with locally available material such as cloth scraps, banana fibre, leather and crocheted fabric, vary in aesthetic, shape, size, technique. Each, however, is meant to embody karuna or compassion.

According to the Karuna Dolls website, 15 prototypes have been made across 13 states—such as Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu— engaging 384 women artisans; 80% of the money from sales goes directly to the makers. The latest launch came on 2 October: two dolls from Punjab—Veeranvali and Jugni.

Ahuja, who worked with the Delhi based non-profit Building Bridges India (BBI) to conceptualise and create this pair of dolls, says, “Karuna Veeranvali represents the traditional Punjabi woman, while Karuna Jugni is more modern.” The three-inch-tall dolls are being sold as a pair for 680 on the Karuna Dolls website.

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Like all Karuna dolls, these offer hope and strength to women artisans. The group in Punjab consists of women who lost family members or whose family members lost jobs, leaving them the sole breadwinners. Ghazala Khan, who runs BBI, says close to 400 Punjab dolls have been made by 14 women who were already working with the NGO. They have received 45,000 from CD for raw material and hope sales will help them keep the project going.

Sukhwinder Kaur, 45, is one of the women. When her husband lost his job as a bus conductor, her family struggled to make ends meet. Kaur, part of BBI’s interventions since 2015, says she started attending workshops and training programmes to upskill her sewing capabilities and learnt to make dolls. “I remember my own childhood when I make these dolls.”

Several traditions of Punjab come together in these quaint, lovely collectables—the skills of phulkari embroidery, suti, paraandi, crochet and making naaras. “We are trying to have something representative of the state,” says designer and craft revivalist Sunaina Suneja, also a member of CD.

The Karuna Dolls website states that the initiative seeks to become a “true champion of various artisanal techniques, folk art and cultural performance expressions which need new platforms for engagement”.

Dhoop, a lifestyle studio run by Aradhana Nagpal, also part of CD, is managing and marketing these dolls. Nagpal’s husband, Mazher Ramzanali, the project lead for Karuna Dolls, says: “The idea is to celebrate the crafts of that region. We hope that these dolls can help introduce traditional arts and crafts to an Instagram audience.

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