Through the ages, an infinite variety of terracotta toys and dolls, both painted and unpainted, have been produced by the artisans of South Asia. Ancient sites at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro have yielded a great wealth of clay toys and dolls of remarkable versatility and charm. Similar votive images have been produced over several centuries throughout Bangladesh: indeed such timeless dolls and toys continue to be cherished even in these days of mechanical playthings.
In Bangladesh dolls have been very popular since historical times. Their traditional forms, made from terracotta, rags, wood and other materials are still to be found in the hands of village children. They continue to be made by village artisans to be sold at village fairs. This is in spite of the fact that modern development have introduced plastic or electronic versions.
Cloth dolls were fashioned out of old saris or left over cloth, tied and twisted into the shape of dolls; a tiny stick would be inserted for the arm and the leg. Coloured thread from the sari border was braided into the doll’ hair. Today the cloth doll has become a popular item even in the towns, where they are sold in the leading shops. Training in this craft is imparted formally through the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation as well as other organisations. These cloth dolls usually represent men and women in different poses or performing specific functions. They are fixed to a wooden stand and kept as decorative items.
Another variation is the terracotta doll. Terracotta dolls can be traced back to over more than two thousand years tradition from Mahasthan and subsequently from Paharpur and Mainamati. These dolls are made by women and young girls of the kumar or potter caste, either in a mould or by pinching a ball of clay into an appropriate shape. The latter form known as tipa putul or kona putul in Mymensingh predates the former. It owes its name to the technique and to the shape of its face which resembles a bird. In Pabna these dolls are known as goalini, because they resemble the gopis in the Krishna myth. Some attribute the figure to Radha’s likeness. The most popular or common dolls in this genre are the mother and child, Shashti, the horse, which owes its creation to the legendary dul dul (a symbol of martyrdom at Karbala), a bird or elephant. Thus these dolls have a rich history and mean more than ordinary toys which reflect changing fashions. Even today a wide variety of brick fired dolls and toys can be bought in the village shops and at fairs. In the towns these dolls are bought as decorative pieces.
Among the most prominent has been Subachini (the Bird mother figure), a symbol of fertility. It is felt that the importance of the mother figure may have been due to the possible existence of a matriarchal system. Clustered with one or more child figures this doll is reminiscent of Shashti, the goddess associated with the birth and protection of children.
Moulded by hand, the numerous male and female forms show a remarkable economy of effort and treatment. The clay is pinched, pressed and rounded to give shape to the body, while the face, with just a hint of a mouth, is indented or affixed with eyes and ears. The arms and legs are symbolic formulations, the lower part of the body often being represented by a bell shaped skirt to give it greater balance. The distinct form which emerges is thus more abstract than representational. Folk animals similarly moulded are most diverse and alluring and retain a freshness which never palls. The function of these ageless types of figures, whether human or animal, is not predetermined. To an adult, it may be ritualistic votive object used as an offering by Muslims at the shrines of pirs and by Hindus in their many pujas; to a child an enchanting toy to stimulate his vivid imagination. Many ancient cult objects have lost their religious connotation but have survived as toys due to their enduring appeal to children. Colouring of these toys has further enhanced their magical quality; thus in a child’s world of make believe an elephant can be blue or yellow and a tiger green or red. Some of these figures coloured white and painted with clear simple lines of black and red are beautiful enough to adorn any home.
An important factor for the continuity of tradition in toys and dolls has been the folk tales and mythology from which the rural artisan draws his source of inspiration. Thus in the numerous melas, held throughout the year in Bangladesh, one finds a limitless variety of toys which have remained essentially unchanged.
Wooden toys and dolls are made by artisans called sutradhars. Following the same methods and rules used by their forefathers, they strive towards a simplification which gives their products an angularity not present in their clay counterpart. Nevertheless, their particular shapes and vibrant colours make wooden toys striking and attractive. Other materials used in the making of dolls and toys in Bangladesh include pith, bamboo, cloth and shells, all of which lend themselves very well to a child’s need for form and colour.
Dolls and animals carved from wood have a ritualistic as well as decorative purpose. In Baidya Bazar, a village adjacent to Sonargaon, which was an old capital of Bengal, lives a seventy years old artisan Narayan Sutradhar. He deftly carves large sized elephants, tigers, horses, toy carts, images of Radha and Krishna from blocks of mango wood. His animals acquire a primitive appearance as he paints them lavishly with bright colours. The elephant’s black body, and the horse or tiger’s yellow body is covered with red, white and orange stripes or spots.
Shola or pith is a soft medium, from which the caste of malakar artisans shape fanciful animals, birds and toys for little children. A piece of shoal is cut with an ordinary kitchen knife, into flowers and streamers which are suspended as mobiles. These are known as moni dekha phul (flowers for children to see). Sometimes the white pith is painted in bright primary colours. Parrots, peacocks and serpents are the most common shapes created from pith. They are used as decorations as well as toys.
In the villages, toys are made from materials, such as paper, Shola, tin or wood. A very popular toy is a small boat made from tin; in the middle is a kerosene wick which is lit when the boat was placed in water. As they are sailed in the tank or pond these tiny boats echo the ‘bhat bhat’ sound of a real boat.