Smriti and Prowess, the women’s SHG, make dolls modelled on Kalpana Chawla, Savitribai Phule, Maya Angelou and Frida Kahlo.

Collage of Smriti Lamech of Smritsonian who makes women icon dolls and orange doll of astronaut Kalpana Chawla
Features Art Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 16:37

When Smriti Lamech was watching Wonder Woman, her eyes welled up when the superhero landed on a building and crashed through the glass. Her husband, she says, was bewildered by her response. But Smriti, like many other women in the audience, was overwhelmed by what she had seen – a powerful female representation, so rare and precious.

That’s what she wants for little girls and even adult women who buy her dolls – what she calls the Bommai (‘doll’ in Tamil) series. “You don’t realise there’s this void in your life until it hits you,” says Smriti.

So far, she has dolls modelled on astronaut Kalpana Chawla, educationist and anti-caste revolutionary Savitribai Phule, writer Maya Angelou and artist Frida Kahlo. All of them women who broke the rules in a patriarchal world and dared to dream.

By her own definition, Smriti is a “dabbler”. She’s danced in music videos to pay her college fee, worked as a hand model, been an air hostess briefly, and worked in several media houses as a journalist. But her love for fabric began with her mother’s boutique.

“My mum ran a boutique in Allahabad for about 15 years, at a time when people didn’t know what a boutique was. She was really good with her hands – embroidery, knitting and all that. My grandmother herself was an artist. She painted beautiful stuff, even nudes. People would walk into our house and be shocked to see this tiny old lady painting nude women! I think that creative streak has always been in the family,” she says. 

Smriti lives in Gurgaon and had come down with her family to Kodaikanal to get her children settled in boarding school. However, with the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, they ended up extending their stay in the quaint hill town.

“I’d ordered two sarees online but I didn’t want to get the blouses stitched because I’ve put on weight in the lockdown (laughs) and I thought I’ll do something else with the fabric. I gave it to a tailor but he made such a hash of one of the pieces that I decided not to go to him again. And then, in the market, I chanced upon this women’s self-help group (SHG) that’s tucked away in one corner,” Smriti recalls.

The group, called Prowess, did a good job on the cushion covers and Smriti continued to give them business. However, when she got chatting with them, they revealed that they were finding it difficult to get work.

“I realised that even if I gave them more things to stitch, I couldn’t sustain an entire organisation. I thought I had to create something that would sell. They were making simple stuffed toys and in May-June, when this initiative started, they could only work with the materials that they had because of the lockdown. I had to work with what they already had and frankly, that’s the only thing for which I’ll take a little credit,” says Smriti.

Maya Angelou doll 

The coronavirus pandemic hit India in the middle of the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests, and Smriti came up with masks and torans that had political slogans on them. But the dolls have been the biggest hit, she says.

“I got to know Maya Angelou very late. I felt kids ought to know about these feminist icons. Everyone knows Mahatma Gandhi and it’s always the men who’ve made it to the top. But not many would have heard of a Savitribai as much. They have to become household names for it to make a difference,” she says.

Savitribai Phule doll

Of the four dolls, Frida and Kalpana have sold the most as of now. Smriti, however, says that she initially didn’t want to do the Frida doll because the artist has been appropriated by capitalist businesses for years now, appearing on coffee mugs, handbags and many other products.

“But I thought, if somebody wants a Frida doll, who am I to say no? I also thought that she has been objectified in all these products and this was a way to commemorate her. The doll is not a plaything, it’s you connecting with her story,” she says. 

Frida Kahlo doll and her palette

Smriti has plans to make dolls on other women icons, too, but needs to finalise the design. The dolls need to have distinct identifiers by which people can figure out on whom they are based.

“These are not plastic moulded dolls where their features are going to come out. If I draw their entire faces, they will look like any other children’s playthings. I also want them to be collectibles for adults, and there are many adults who’ve bought them for themselves. The dolls have not been made fat and squat, like a teddy bear. I realised that with an overstuffed toy, you can’t do anything with the limbs,” she says.

Smriti’s dolls come with accessories like a book and pencil or palette, pillow, sleeping bag and, in Kalpana’s case, a rocket.

 

Kalpana Chawla doll and her rocket

“These were the first dolls and designs that came to me. I thought I’ll share a couple on Facebook and my friends would buy to help these women,” she says, adding that she did not think at the time that the dolls would become so popular.

In fact, Smriti and Prowess have received so many orders for the handmade, colourful and inspiring bommais that the wait time for new orders has gone up. There are practical difficulties, too, like some of the women of the SHG being unable to turn up for work because the place where they stay has been turned into a containment zone overnight for even one coronavirus positive case.

However, Smriti’s customers, who see value in the dolls, haven’t stopped ordering. If you’d like a precious bommai and wish to get in queue, you can contact The Smritsonian page on Facebook for price and payment details.

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