Thatta Kedona

Culture is a Basic Need

Story of the Dolls Village

In the green heat of one of the most fertile lands in the world there is a tiny repository of color -- a doll village. This is Thatta Ghulamka Dhiroka (TGD), an ancient world embalmed in amber -- a small village in Central Punjab, Pakistan. This rural and needy community has, in the space of 7 years and with the help of its skilled work, become known to the world as a fact where once it was a whisper on the wind.


The story begins in 1990 when Dr. Senta Siller, a German graphic designer, and her husband were invited by a Pakistani student in her class – Amjad Ali – to visit his ancestral village. They saw a village where country farmers still lived as they did in an ancient era. Time stands still here. To the modern eye, used to civic amenities glittering facades and antiseptic cities it is perhaps a shock to be faced with a rural village such as TGD, which had no roads, electricity or water until the year 2000.

No one in the village could afford fired brick buildings so nearly all the houses were built using sun dried bricks and a plaster of mud would act as a cement to hold the bricks in place. This style of building was similar to the Adobe houses built by Native Americans on the opposite side of the globe.

“My husband who is an architect fell in love with the mud structures and he said,“ they will disappear in the next 10 or 20 years -- we must come back and make a video,” recalled Senta. And so it was that a year later the couple returned with a young filmmaker to the village and rural life in Pakistan was filmed. This video was named “Amjad’s Village” and after returning to Germany they showed the movie to their audience. The entrance fees of about 300 people who watched the film was then used to purchase the cement and bricks needed to build a boy’s school in TGD. The farmers themselves constructed the school.

The farmers also founded an NGO named Anjuman-e-Falah-e-Aama and sought the cooperation of volunteering experts. On her previous visit Dr. Siller perceived the need of the village families for a second income- farming was not able to suffice their basic needs.

The first volunteer in the village was Leila Mason, a young German doctor who established a Basic Health Unit in a private home and trained three women in basic healthcare over a period of 18 months. The village NGO then invited Dr. Siller to create income for the village women through applied arts.

After a thorough investigation with particular reference to the dearth of quality handmade toys in the local market, Senta went back to Germany. “I learnt doll making in 1992 (I never made a doll before- I am a designer) at some evening classes in Germany for the village to multiply the skills of the women.” The following year, after having retired from her post as vice principal of an art college in Berlin, she returned to the village and work began on the income generation project, which is now known under the trademark of “THATTA KEDONA”” meaning “village of toys” in Punjabi.

The village project really started with doll making and it is still this skill, which has earned it global fame. Each doll that is crafted in TGD is marked with the name the doll maker.

It is a unique product and each woman makes her own doll. “We don’t make it like an assembly line in a factory. Each girl learns to be a good doll maker and can maker her own product. They (the women) come if they need material and only if they need training do they come at special hours. Usually they come in the morning to deliver what has been done and take home new material. They deliver whenever the product is ready”, say Senta Siller.

If an urgent order is to be fulfilled then Senta asks a team if they can finish the required amount in the specified time. Usually there is no pressure because the village project is well managed and there is always an inventory of products both in the showroom in Lahore and in the Women Art Center (WAC) in the village. Also, the work is usually completed ahead of deadlines and for special orders. A timesheet is developed so that each doll maker knows when to deliver a particular doll in given week.

In parallel with the doll making activity innovation was required to produce different products for sale. For traditional designs Senta looked for old block prints -- in the streets, in the bazaars-- and wherever she would spot a little elephant or a little donkey, a “more” (peacock), as she says rolling the “r”, or a camel the design would be mentally sketched. These would then be used for designing new products.

Some of the objects developed at the center are actually centuries old. For instance there is the dhota -- a beautiful hanging mobile or pendant. These are still alive as wedding presents in the village- when a girl is married her friends still give her a mobile for her new house. The women’s project copied the mobile but used better material to make an improved product.

There was also the need for innovation and creativity. “We took the original children’s shows of the Punjab -- the Ali Baba and Khussa -- and made a small ornate pincushions. We converted things, which were existent in the culture. For instance, decorations of the braids, “pirandas” are beautiful but nobody will buy (them) -- in the foreign community. “They don’t use “pirandas” so we make a bookmark with this beaded ornament. The same ornament with tiny hooks turns into earrings or it can with a small golden loop become a buttonhole ornament for shits or be turned into a Christmas tree decoration,” says Senta.

After this range of small products Senta observed a technique in the village where a coil of twisted cotton material would be manipulated into animal or human figures. In order to give more definition to the shapes of such inventions and make them more durable Senta taught the women a variation of this method. “We made this in miniature with wire and wool so we invented very small dolls and I brought the brooch needles from Germany and we started with brooches and the next year we invented the finger puppets and the little dolls were used for many applications.”

The Women Art Center grew and now has a beautiful indigenously designed building that was built using a grant from the German Embassy in Islamabad to house it as well as a photovoltaic system that was funded by the Japanese embassy in Pakistan.

The women in the center made steady progress and slowly but surely incomes began to flow into their houses and the difference could be clearly felt. This left the young men of the village watching in envy as the women used their time in creating and also enjoyed themselves whilst the boys were left with no gainful occupation.

The yond men asked that work be found for them and so with the cooperation of the Germany NGO and its local counterpart a Technical Training Institute was developed for the manufacturing of small tin sheet items and the latest technologies such as those needed in harnessing solar power were envisioned as skills training for the boys.

Senta bought a sample solar cooker from and Institute of Alternative Technology in Lahore and then found a sponsored volunteer in Germany -- a young technical teacher who visited the village twice 1997 and 1998. He trained the boys in the making of solar cookers and little tin sheet rickshaws.

The solar cookers are a low cost alternative and are effective in making stew like dishes. Already the prices of petroleum all over the globe have begun to destabilize. It’s to the credit of the village planners that they have had the farsightedness to take this possible scenario into account when planning for feasible training programs in the village.

Special report appeared in Weekend – The Khleej Times.

posted by Omar M. Ali @ 10:50 AM,

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