Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Theological reflections on the theme of dolls - by Jyoti Sahi

On November 18, 2000, Francoise Bosteels exhibited a series of dolls which she has created over the years. These dolls represent figures to be found in ordinary Indian situation. They represent both joyful figures, and also people who are suffering. Writing about her creations, Francoise says:

‘These figures are an expression of my integration in India. Each has a story to tell. Each one has a meaning for me. They embody and express something of my experience, of my search, questions, dreams and hopes, discoveries, friendships, tears, protests, anger, prayer and celebrations. They are a par of me, and I, a part of them’.

Francoise exhibited her dolls at a meeting of the Ecumenical Association of Third-World Theologians (EATWOT), in Dec 1996. Stella Baltazar, a feminist theologian and Mary John Mananzan were among those who took a special interest in these dolls, as they felt that through these small figures, Francoise was giving expression to a vision of humanity in a country like India, and this vision could be the basis for doing theology not in a discursive, rational, and systematic way, which is possible when using words, and texts, but rather in an intuitive and symbolic way, using images. Francoise invited various friends to respond to her dolls, and to share their own reflections on similar themes, using poems or meditations. In other words, she felt that her dolls could evoke memories and impressions, which could corroborate the themes which her small figurines have tried to embody. For example, Jane Sahi commented:

‘One afternoon I visited a center for street boys in Bangalore. Its building was unfinished, and the co-ordinator suggested that the boys divide into groups and construct models of houses from the discarded materials on the site. With great enthusiasm the boys gathered stones, sand, broken bricks, bits of string and wire, pieces of piping…With these they fashioned elaborate and imaginative models –miniature match box TV sets, bottle tops for bulbs, a clay watch dog, tin stove, decorations from toffee wrappers. Their scant resources only seemed to spur their inventiveness. They had no access to sophisticated kits or readymade toys, but with little direction, they created a rich imaginative world. The boys’ independence, excitement and absorption contrasted sharply with the boredom that privileged, over-indulged children complain of.

Market forces, in one way responsible for street childrens’ material poverty, had ironically left their essential creativity untouched. The same market forces sap the creative energy of the rich by saturating their lives with things.

'Does creativity flourish more freely amidst simplicity?’

Play is something very universal. Jane Sahi has been working in a small village school which belongs to a group of non-formal schools, engaging with children who often come from very deprived backgrounds. But still, every child has the capacity to get deeply involved in creative play, and it is through this imaginative inter-action with materials, and also evoking of an inner world through the making of toys, that a vital learning process is initiated.

As an artist, I have been very much concerned with the wider implications of the creative process. Art is not just a matter of making art objects which are thought to be ‘aesthetic’, and find an appreciation in the sophisticated world of the cultured, who patronize an art market. Art is something far more basic and universal than that. The artist, as person who uses her/his creative imagination, does not exist in some kind of vacuum, but needs to interact with a real world, and to use this creative talent in a positive way, in order to express a vision and also a longing for a better world. It is in this context that we may speak of the important role which art has in society as a whole, in bringing about new techniques, but also serving both the consciousness which is the basis for education, and the holistic vision of life which is essential for inner psychic healing. That is why we talk about art and technology, art and education, as well as art and therapy.

Dolls, or toys, are to be seen as one of the most primal expressions of the playful imagination. In fact, without dolls, which include puppets and other aids to performance like masks, and even costumes, there can be no play. An important feature of playing with a doll, as opposed to playing with a puppet, is the joy of dressing-up the doll, and also undressing it in order to wash it, feed it, care for it as one might look after a child or small animal.

As quoted earlier, Jane has described the play of street children, who have lost many of the important relationships with family and home that are so important to a sense of self-identity. For such children play becomes an essential way towards finding meaning in their present situation, of creating new relationships, of having hopes and dreams for the future, and of coming to terms with their own sense of dislocation. The very act of making a home, even though it is only a small play home, and of creating people for whom one has to care, and think of their needs is a healing process, re-connecting the individual with a real world in which the individual lives. More than that, play like this helps to re-discover the possibilities in the material world which we have close to our hands, and to find that what has been discarded as waste, rejected, can have a new use and meaning. This helps those who themselves feel that they have no place in society, are in a sense waste material in a consumer world, to find new meaning in their own lives. As Jane describes in her reflection on play, when we visited a home for street children in the city of Bangalore (the ‘Bosco Mane’), we found the children playing at making miniature homes out of pieces of waste material, and peopling their world with little figures made out of odds and ends which they had picked up from the street. These were not just things for them, but assumed a kind of personality, which was related to an inner world of experience. We speak of ‘rag dolls’ which indicates how for a child, even a rag can assume the character of a person. One of our own children, as a baby became passionately fond of a shawl, so that he could not go to sleep without having this shawl in his arms. Even when the warm piece of cloth got worn out with repeated washing, and was almost threadbare, it represented a kind of comforting and familiar presence which provided a sense of security. The soft cloth object connected the child with certain deep memories, which had their origin ultimately in a sense of selfhood.
In play nothing is wasted. Everything has its significance, and that is why play is a very important principle underlying the way in which culture should relate to nature ecologically, respecting the fact that everything is cyclical, nothing should be discarded. In one of the most powerfully expressed poems of the collection ‘The Dolls Speak’ which was written originally in Tamil, and well translated into English we hear of the:

‘Flower man on a bicycle’

Through yesterdays
Of time forgot,
Have I not seen
This flower man on a bike?

 For how many yugas
Have you sold those flowers?

Why that bike?
To wheel from then and now?
To sell flowers before they wilt
But can you out-cycle Time?

Your flowers will wilt;
Your bike will wear;
Age will gray your hair.

Will women
Who deck their tresses today
Remember you tomorrow?
Will village records cite you?
Tomorrow, when another
Comes to sell flowers,
Will someone say, ‘Where is he?’

Your fragrant buds delight, then wilt;
Your blossoms wither and dry.
Will you pedal your way
The same route, to lie
With faded flowers
                                                     ~ Pasuvaiah

In this poem we observe a connection between the peddler and his wears –the fading flowers which give joy, but which ultimately pass forgotten. The doll itself is a manifestation of cyclical time, giving meaning to the experience of fresh flowers which decorate ones hair, or home, but which, like the very act of play, pass away, beyond recall. Here we find an underlying image of play as Lila, the ever present and yet ever passing reality behind all phenomenal existence.

A.K.Ramanujan, who was both a poet and a teller of stories, refers often to the image of the talking doll (cf. his ’Collected Essays’). In a Tamil poem which he has translated, belonging to the Sangam period, the metaphor of ‘the doll and the mirror’ is powerfully employed to convey the virtual world which reflects its own image in a recurring sequence of self-deception. Yet in this very process of make-belief, one is reminded of the fact that what we call ‘Truth’ is itself a play with what is unreal. In the same way a mask, or dream, can often be more revealing than what we perceive as the real and tangible, day to day phenomenal world. A folk story theme which A.K.Ramanujan discusses, speaks of the cheated princess, who, through the play of circumstances beyond her control, has been reduced to becoming a mere servant in the very home which should rightfully be her domain.. By talking at night to a doll, she tells it her story, but also reveals to the prince who over-hears her talking to her doll, the person whom she really is. We often are only able to communicate our deepest truest nature to a doll, and thus not only discover ourselves, but also the other, through this ‘play of forms’ in make-belief.

Looking up the origin of the word ‘doll’ in a dictionary, I found that it was a familiar form of the name ‘Dorothea’. This name itself is significant –it goes back to the Greek word meaning ‘someone who has been given by God (Theos)’. The root word to give –‘do’- can, I think, even be found in Hindi, when we say ‘de-do’ or simply ‘do’. A ‘doll’ is something given and treasured. A child can be a doll for its parents. The danger with this word ‘doll’ is that it is very much associated with something inanimate, in fact simply with something which is dressed up. The slang phrase ‘to doll up’ means to dress up. We are familiar with those dolls which have a series of different outfits, or clothes, which a child loves to dress up, like the famous ‘Barbie-dolls’.

I must admit that what troubled me at first in the dolls which are presented here is that they had no faces. Without any indication of a mouth, or eyes, how could we talk about these dolls speaking? But I do know that the most ancient dolls, which we even find for example in the Harappa or Mohenjodaro civilizations, which are made out of pinched clay, and have a very simple and elemental form, often have a merely round head, without any indication of features. The Upanishads, speaking of the Self, say that it is like a being no bigger than a thumb. Well, a thumb does not have any features. I remember as a child that when I was sick, and lying in bed, I often played with my thumbs, imagining them to be two little persons, which I invented conversations for. I made one thumb speak to the other thumb, and this little drama enacted on my bed sheet, helped me to create a whole imaginary world, which kept me very much engaged for long periods of time. We know that ‘dolls’ are perhaps one of the most ancient forms of play-objects, and even have a very important role in ritual forms of magic. An image which is worshipped is also a doll, as we see in figures of the Child Krishna, and even Child Jesus. The very popular cult which we find in the Infant Jesus, represents the baby Jesus as a doll.

There is a very charming story which I have no doubt was true, about a Muslim princess in India, who was given by her Father a little doll to play with. This doll happened to be the image of Krishna, which had been taken from a temple when it was destroyed by invading Muslim armies. It was such a charming figure, that the iconoclasts had not broken it to pieces, but had preserved it, and so it had found its way into the nursery of a Muslim princess. The Muslim princess understood that her precious doll was also something that the Hindu community treasured, and wanted to be returned. And so she agreed to give back the doll to be once again enshrined in the Holy of Holies of a temple. But so great was her love for this doll, that she gave up her position as a princess and went to live near the temple, visiting the Lord Krishna in his shrine every day. The Hindu  community recognizing her deep devotion to their Lord, recognized her as a saint, and kept her memory in deep reverence. Here we are reminded of the deep mystery that God comes to our homes as a doll, inviting us to play with Him. It is in and through this play that we learn to love the Creator, who in His play, had made each one of us.

Rabindranath Tagore, who had a deep understanding of play writes (in his collection of poems ‘The Crescent Moon’):

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
and the restless water is boisterous.
On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet
with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand,
and they play with empty shells
With withered leaves they weave their boats
and smilingly float them on the vast deep.
Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.
(‘On the Seashore’).

And again he sings:

‘Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?’
the baby asked its mother.
She answered half crying, half laughing.
and clasping the baby to her breast,-
‘You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.
You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games;
And when with clay I made the image of my god every morning.
I made and unmade you then
You were enshrined with our household deity,
in his worship I worshipped you…..’
(‘The beginning’)

It is this mystery of play which I feel Jane Sahi is hinting at when she writes in her poem on the Kolam design which is part of the daily ritual of many women in India:


Between the dark night
And the light of morning
The women rise and
Bend to sweep and clean
And decorate and celebrate
The space leading
To the open door-
The place of coming in
And going out.

The doorway marks
The threshold of our lives;
A child’s first step alone
Beyond what’s safe and known,
The blessing of the bride
As she first enters in,
Where mango leaves
Once green and fresh,
Hang tied and withered
To remind us of past
Fasts and feasts………….’
  ~ Jane Sahi

Dolls relate not only to their clothes, but also their environments. So we have a long tradition of doll-houses. Here the dolls are placed with other miniature objects like cooking utensils, furniture and so on. We all know how this micro-cosmic world can become like a reflection of the real world, so that what is enacted on this miniature scale, is believed to happen in the larger, macrocosmic world as well. So, for example at the time of Christmas, we make a little miniature scene of the crib, with small doll like figures of the shepherds, kings, and Mary and Joseph. Then, on Christmas night itself, a little doll of the baby Jesus is brought to the crib, and placed in the arms of Mother Mary. A similar tradition of creating a kind of miniature world into which the Creator is born like a child born into the world of his play things, is also part of the Krishna Jayanthi celebrations. There too a landscape is made out of various materials, and the Creator is brought into Creation, in the same way as a doll is brought into its doll’s house. In fact there is another charming story told of the child Jesus, that he used to like to make doll figures when he played. Once he made little birds out of clay, and loved them so much that they flew away!

These reflections on the significance of dolls, and the way in which they open our eyes on the world in which we live, will perhaps help us to appreciate the importance of an exhibitions like this one on ‘speaking dolls’. Here, I would suggest, we find a rather novel idea in that these dolls convey to us a social concern for the sufferings which human beings face in the world of today. Even if the dolls do not have lips to speak with, their whole condition –the clothes they wear, and the environment in which they are set, tell us a story. Here perhaps the doll assumes a role rather like that of a puppet. It does not move, but its  very body language seems to evoke a story.

These dolls challenge our idea of what a doll should be –something cuddly and comforting. Perhaps they make us look at human beings as dolls, in the sense of being often merely consumer items- reduced to the state of those entertaining objects which some people buy as souvenirs, and place in glass cupboards in their sitting rooms. Only here the dolls remind us that the people whom they represent are not just consumer items, they are people with lives of their own, and sufferings which speak to our hearts. The fact, as remarked earlier, that dolls have the power to evoke in us a deep need to care for others, and our environment evokes in our hearts the recognition that only by respecting others, even in their nakedness and homelessness, can we learn to discover and respect ourselves.

The world of the doll is very much the concern of the heart. It evokes a felt reaction. Its first appeal is something small and vulnerable, something which invites us to care for it, and to live it. And then, as in these speaking dolls, it reminds us of all those human beings who God cares for, who have been given by God like Dorothea, but which human beings have discarded, and rejected as mere rag dolls, fit for the rubbish bin, and nothing else.

At this point we might come back to reflect on the artist as a maker of dolls. The word ‘doll’ gives one the impression of something very trivial –something which is only of interest to a small child. Like ‘toy’ it seems to indicate a virtual world which the adult, serious individual, fully engaged with reality, should have learnt to go beyond. What I have tried to reflect upon here indicates that the doll or toy is not something to be trivialized. The world of the child is also a door-way into understanding the mind of the Creator, for whom the whole universe is like a toy ball, and the human being is like a small doll which has been fashioned out of clay, and loved into being alive. This world of dolls introduces us into a profound discussion on the theology of play.

In conclusion, I would just like to remark on the personality and character of the doll maker. In order to be a good maker of dolls, one has to be oneself childlike. Those dolls which seem to work best, are the ones which do not try to illustrate a point or become a kind of sermon, but simply are beings in themselves, and not mere visual representations of an ethical message. Art evokes a response to a lived reality, but should not reduce life to being an allegory. I am very much impressed, however, by the care and real passion with which Francoise has made these speaking dolls. One can guess at the child in her, which has always loved to make dolls. These dolls exist in her inner world, they are persons whom she has learnt to love and care for. It is from that child like simplicity and concern for every detail of life that these dolls speak to us, and ask us also to respond.

I feel that at this time of Advent, we would do well to think of the Christmas Crib in a way which includes the culture which we have around us in India. Perhaps we need to introduce into the domain of the Child Jesus, all those persons who people our everyday world, in the same way that Francoise has recognized the reality of the rich diversity of Indian life, through the making of her dolls. In this way, we could help towards celebrating the Christmas mystery in a truly multi-cultural context, showing how it is only through the loving concern of a childlike simplicity, that we can come close to the spirit of Christ, whose playful imagination transforms the whole of Creation, by accepting all the diversity which our many cultures express.

~ Jyoti Sahi, in Word and Worship

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