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Deccan Herald » She » Full Story

Playing with dolls at 62

Her dolls contain hidden social messages. SUMAA TEKUR meets Francoise Bosteels.

We all indulged in doll making in craft class at school. From cutting mom’s old sari into tiny pieces to using paint and sequins for decorating the dolls, it was a craft and just that. Only to get an ‘A’ grade and forget about it. Memories of that craft class flood you at the first look of the dolls made by 62-year-old Belgian Francoise Bosteels.

Francoise is a nurse working in various villages of Tamil Nadu for a religious institution. Her collection of 180 dolls was on display at the Chitrakala Parishat, Bangalore during the first week of December. The exhibition titled ‘The Dolls Speak’ was Francoise’s reflection of Indian village life. And here, the faceless and expressionless dolls were speaking volumes about India and its culture, seen through the eyes of a foreigner.

A woman hugging a bark of a tree, a girl hanging from a ceiling fan, a young boy rag picking, a widow in white and kumkum and colour bangles in a basket next to her – the dolls certainly speak. The dolls also touch upon a number of social issues that Indians have been living with for years. No judgment is made, but these tiny objects trigger the recall button somewhere in the mind of the onlooker to set you thinking about the issue. “Some of these dolls are true stories. They have no eyes and expressions because then the beauty of what they want to communicate is forever lost,” says Francoise.

Each doll, on an average, is all of five inches. But long hours and by burning the midnight oil is how they came to life. Francoise says that it took her at least 12 hours to make one doll and she works mostly at night when it is calm and peaceful.
The dolls are made from a variety of colourful cloth called feutre, raphia (strong paper ribbons), pipe-cleaners, wool, thread and discarded bobbins, silk and cotton cut pieces, banana and coconut fibre, palm leaves, tamarind skin, bamboo, pieces of wood, small plastic bottles and boxes and similar throw away items. Cotton balls are used as human heads.

For the jewellery, she has used gold and silver thread. To complete the picture, she has collected cheap readymade toys such as tiny clocks, a sewing machine, a harp, etc. Gum and thread are used to hold the pieces together.
“The flannel cloth for these dolls is imported from Belgium. I used these attractive, very bright colours because that brings these dolls to life and makes them communicate. Besides, this variety of colours is not available in India,” Francoise explains.

The dolls exhibition was in Bangalore second time having travelled to Taiwan, Philippines, Bolivia and Belgium. The exhibition was also part of the Ecumenical Association of Third-World Theologians (EATWOT) held at Tagaytay, Philippines in 1996. The theme of the conference was ‘Globalisation and its Impact on People’s Life’. Accordingly, the dolls reflecting the issues connected with the theme of the conference were displayed. A book has also been brought out in which writers and poets from across the world have reacted to the dolls.

Bed-ridden with a kidney problem, Francoise started making dolls at the age of 17, to keep herself busy. Francoise came to India to work for the downtrodden, and forty-five years and many dolls later, Francoise beckons the looker to “listen with your heart to what these figures might be telling you about your own people, to the questions they might be posing and the promises they might be symbolising.”
Finally, all she hopes is that the dolls move the looker’s heart into making the world a better place to live in.

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