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Beyond Barbie

Francoise Bosteels says her dolls are an expression of her integration in India


FOR FRANCOISE Bosteels, a doll goes far beyond being a plastic Barbie, fluffy teddy, or a squeaky doggy. It has its own unique spirit and persona.

Born in Belgium in 1942, Bosteels trained as a nurse, joined the Sisters of the Divine Saviour in 1965. She came to India three decades ago (in 1974) to work, initially, in the villages of Tamil Nadu in social and health education programmes. Leprosy prevention and care was part of her vocation. She moved to Bangalore in 1984 and has been here since.

Her initial foray into doll making began when she was just 17. Confined to bed for months due to an illness, Bosteels made dolls as a pastime before turning it into a creative pursuit. Her interest found new expression when she decided to make India her home: "My early inspiration came from identifying myself with the people here, and sharing their day-to-day life experiences and struggles... The dolls are an expression of my integration in India. Each one has a meaning for me. They embody and express something of my experiences, of my search, questions, dreams hopes, discoveries, friendships, tears, protests, anger, prayer and celebrations. They are a part of me, and I, a part of them."

Little nuggets


Bosteels' dolls are little nuggets drawn from everyday life. The material used is ordinary and often includes cheap, readymade toys and many throwaway items. With these mundane odds and ends, she creates her protagonists and sets them in different postures and milieu — a little girl drawing a kolam, a youngster immersed in building his dream house, women churning butter, a flower man on his bicycle, adivasis, street children, and so on. Social issues find expression in her depiction of differently-abled people, street children, abused women, landless labourers, widows, dalits and refugees. An old woman forcefully embracing a tree revives the spirit of Chipko Movement. A few figures do look dull and repetitive, while some situations appear contrived. Nevertheless, it is not easy to ignore Bosteels' steely resolve in pursuing her art and concern for the poor and downtrodden. "I am not a sociologist, nor a theologist, I am a nurse," she says. "My understanding comes from primary experiences, from faith, reflection and research..." Over the years, these dolls have been exhibited in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai. They have been put on display in Philippines, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and of course, Belgium. In October this year, they even travelled to the faraway Bolivia. "It was a great experience. More than 4,500 people visited the exhibition in just five days."

Speaking dolls

The idea of publishing the book, The Dolls Speak appeared when Bosteels visited Philippines to attend a conference on Globalisation and Its impact of People's Life. She used the medium of dolls to illustrate some of the issues that were a part of the discussions during the conference. Published by Better World Publications in 2000, the book has already gone for a reprint. It not only presents a collection of dolls made over a period of 20 years by Bosteels, but each visual is accompanied by a poem or a story penned by different writers. For instance, a lame boy on crutches is seen watering a plant while the adjoining poem reads:

No, not your pity,
give me work.
I'll do all that others can
and do them better.
Only don't look at me
when I work ....

(An exhibition of 180 dolls created by Bosteels is on at the Chitrakala Parishat till December 6.)

ATHREYA

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