Suguna Rangaswami has been making a variety of dolls since 1970s and plans to do so for as long as she can.

Meet the doll-maker who has made kids smile for over four decades
news Doll-making Saturday, September 03, 2016 - 19:34

If Barbie isn’t your idea of a doll to gift, then Suguna Rangaswami’s creations are not just a visual delight but they’re also quite cheeky and ingenious.

Sample this. When Suguna’s youngest daughter asked her to make superhero dolls for the children she teaches in the US, the Chennai-based homemaker decided to have some fun of her own: the superhero figures are a mix and match. “The trick is to let the children observe and name them as they please,” Suguna says.

Image: Superhero dolls

There’s more. Her fairy tale-inspired reversible dolls.

“On one side is Cinderella in housemaid clothes, and on the other side, she wears a gown,” she explains. She has also made a Little Red Riding Hood reversible doll with the grandmother on side and the wolf on the other. Goldilocks is next on the cards, but is challenging. “It’s difficult to stitch three bears. I don’t want to do just one, it won’t look good,” she insists.

Image: Reversible Cinderella doll

Besides these, Suguna makes stuffed animals, finger puppets, reversible dolls, rugs, rag dolls, and animal cushions. It’s the latter two which are sought after by customers, most of whom are from Chennai. She also gets orders from Bengaluru and Mumbai.

Image: Puppet dolls

“Making dolls is my meditation,” Suguna says fondly. At 77, Suguna is self-assured and laughs easily. But her easy manner only masks the effort she has put into creating her art over 40 years.  

Suguna stitches each doll herself, and has only slowed down a little with age. “It’s the rag dolls which take the most amount of time. I stitch each strand of their hair, their dresses and the like. It takes a minimum of 10 days,” Suguna says.

Image: Rag dolls

Suguna learnt doll-making from Women’s Weekly, a magazine she used to get when they lived in Kolkata. Jayapriya, her second oldest child, recalls that Suguna had been stitching dolls since the 1970s.

“They were everywhere! And of course we ignored them till we moved to Chennai in 1980. That’s when she started making them as giveaway presents for family birthday parties,” Jayapriya recounts.

“She’d make all these little stuffed animals before. Most of the children in the family have gotten her dolls. Even today, none of them have come apart because she makes them with so much love and meticulousness. She chooses each fabric, each little element herself,” says Jayapriya.

Collage: Animal cushions, snakes and ladders rug, Suguna (bottom right)

It was always important that the dolls have “sweet” faces. “Many dolls and teddy bears I see are cute and cuddly, but they have mean eyes. My mother would always use soft blush patches for the cheeks. She’s so calm and happy when she sits with a doll every night, after her nightly game of online scrabble that is,” she adds.

In 1980, Suguna began to pursue doll-making more commercially with her friend Sarada. She held her first exhibition at CP Arts Center, Mylapore, the following year. But she didn’t turn it into a full-fledged business. “I am more of a housewife. Family has always come first for me and I have no regrets about it,” asserts Suguna. “But now that my kids are all settled, I’m more recognizable,” she jokes and chuckles.

Until three months ago, Suguna was making dolls for two shops (one in Chennai and one on Bengaluru) but both closed down. She now takes only private orders and showcases her work in exhibitions. But she’s had to reduce the work orders due to her jam-packed schedule.

Suguna lives with a full-time house-help in Chennai, and when she’s not visiting her five children, she has other things to keep her occupied. “I play scrabble with my daughter and sister-in-law here, visit my friends, go to religious meetings and hold chanting sessions at my place. I’m fully occupied, there’s no time at all!” she laughs.

Suguna’s doll-making schedule is booked solid until November. “And I plan to do this for as long as I can,” Suguna says.

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