During the pandemic, Devaki picked up the habit of turning her grandchildren’s old, abandoned dolls into characters in stories she read as a young woman.

Devaki wearing a green sari and blouse and a pair of glasses smiles standing in front of a glass showcase which has barbie dolls dressed up as various mythical characters
Features Human Interest Sunday, November 07, 2021 - 20:04

The door to Naalukettil, a house at the end of a long maze-like lane, is open at half past two on a Saturday afternoon. An elderly man sits on the living room couch with a parippuvada (Kerala snack), humming an old tune to himself. He can see his wife Devaki painting over the faded features of an old Barbie doll. It is the newest in a series of her Barbie recreations, themed to fit story situations she read as a young woman. A Shakuntala Barbie, reaching down to pick out a pricking thorn, a Chandalabhikshuki (beggar woman considered “untouchable”) offering well-water to a Buddhist monk, all neatly arranged row by row in a glass shelf at the couple’s house in Mannanthala, tucked safely away from the city roads of Thiruvananthapuram. The husband – Sukumaran Acharyan – proudly remarks on the art of Devaki -- S Devaki in full.

Now 75, Devaki picked the habit up last year when she unexpectedly got some time on her hands after COVID-19 struck. Anitha, their domestic worker, says she joined the household around that time and Devaki was left free to pursue her love for creating art out of stuff lying around the house.

“I used to do this when I was much younger. I’d see beautiful things when I went out and then want to create them when I come back home. I would pick up the waste and unused materials lying all over the house and get to work. Most of the time I just put things together with an idea that it will somehow work and then it does,” Devaki says, keeping her paint brush aside.

 

 

She narrates each of the stories into which she has placed the Barbie dolls. Hamsa Damayanti, the famous Raja Ravi Varma painting, has been recreated with a Barbie doll dressed up in a sari, facing a swan who acts as a messenger. Devaki’s swan is made of plaster of Paris. Above Hamsa Damayanti is the Chandalabhikshuki Barbie. “In Kumaranasan’s poem, she asks Upagupta (a disciple of Buddha) if he can receive water from her as she is from an oppressed caste. He replies that he didn’t ask her caste but for water,” Devaki says.


Barbies as Menaka and Damayanti (Hamsa Damayanti)


Chandalabhikshuki and Upagupta

All the dolls once belonged to Devaki’s granddaughter who outgrew them after a point and left them forgotten in a room.

She remembers nearly everything she read, and narrates the lines from the original work. Devaki recites from Kumaranasan’s Karuna as she picks up her work in progress – Vasavadatta resting as her thozhi (friend) holds the fan. For Shakuntala, Devaki sings lines from Kalidasa.

 

 

Not all are story situations. Three of her Barbies are dressed as brides of three religions – Christian, Muslim and Hindu – all of them wearing saris made from border pieces of Devaki’s unused saris. Devaki stitched their blouses from even smaller pieces of cloth. For jewellery, she’d pick up old fancy items abandoned by her grandchildren and cut them to size. These are, of course, stories of Indian women so the Barbies’ blonde hair has been carefully painted black. The base of all the works is made of painted thermocol.

The Barbies are all in conventional attire – an Unniyarcha (mythical woman warrior) and a Menaka (mythical celestial fairy) among them. A modern recreation of Barbie is yet to emerge.

Devaki is proficient in painting too. Behind Shakuntala and her friends is a landscape she painted to give a fitting background – ancient times, in the middle of woods.


Shakuntala Barbie

Next to the Barbie recreations are a bunch of flowers that Devaki shaped out of plaster of Paris or floral powders mixed and kneaded. Having possibly run out of space in the glass shelf, she has placed more items atop an open shelf. Made of coir, these make adorable decorative items and vases.

A Science graduate, Devaki never had a job. Perhaps she had got busy with running her house all these decades and it was in the middle of the dreaded pandemic that she finally found time for her creative pursuits.

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