The streets around Madurai Temple were bustling as I walked around taking in the scenes. The markets were shifted recently but some of the shops around the temples were still crowded. As wafts of fragrance from Madurai jasmines drifted in the air, I found a small shop selling clay dolls of Gods and Goddesses that are displayed during Navaratri Golu or Kolu. As my eyes scanned the colourful deities, I found a petite doll of the Patron Goddess of Madurai – Meenakshi Amman painted in green. I immediately decided that she had to adorn my home during the next Navaratri Golu. Just as I was walking towards the temple, my guide Vani asked me if I wanted to visit Vilachery pottery village near Madurai, which was home to several craftsmen and women who carved these dolls and painted them. And that is how we decided to drive down to Vilachery, located 10 kms away from the city.
Home to over 200 families, Vilachery is a small pottery village where almost every home belongs to the artisans. As traffic peaks, it takes us almost 30 minutes to reach the village. A small truck stood in our path, blocking the entry to a narrow lane as cartons of dolls made of clay were loaded inside. ” They are on the way to Kerala, ” explained Vani. Well, it’s not just Navaratri dolls that are popular here, but even dolls for Christmas – we will see more inside. ”
We waited for the truck to pass and walked through the dusty lanes and went inside a small colourful house painted in shades of blue and cream. I could hear loud music from the rooms, as a radio soaked in old-world charm belted out retro Tamil film songs. The entire hall was a sight to behold. There were a few dolls scattered around along with paints and dolls, shaded in different hues.
Three women sat in different corners, painting the dolls. There were Ganeshas scattered along with other deities. But amidst all of them was a set of dolls meant to be a part of a Christmas nativity set. Discarded dolls, headless humans and several broken fragments of jars and pots lay scattered with splashes of paint everywhere. As the music blared and the women laughed and gossiped, I could see a dog sleeping amidst them.
However everything here seemed magical even in this most mundane moment. The deities were getting a fresh coat of paint. The terracotta dolls were moulded and shaped and a few scattered statues were left lying in the courtyard to dry. The visual expressions, the garish colours, the sparkling eyes – everything seemed so stark and yet vivid and distinct. Almost every house in Vilachery Pottery Village was a workshop where mounds of clay were transformed and moulded into dolls of deities that came alive in striking colours.
Vani explained that the clay was obtained locally from a temple tank in Velachery Pottery Village while the artisans moulded it and painted by hand. The dolls were considered unique and exclusive with glazing work done on terracotta and clay that were found only here – hence Vani added that the artisans have applied for a GI (Geographical Indication) Registration for the clay dolls. “Initially they were only creating clay pots but now they have started making dolls. Sometimes you can even see toys as well, ” she added.
Historically it is believed that the potters and painters have been living here in Vilachery Pottery Village since the late 1940s but it is only in the last three decades that Vilachery has become very popular . One of the artisans set up a creative studio and this became a training ground. The first shop was started in the 1965 by two artisans – Sadashivam and Sooran Velar and it became a small company. The village soon became one of the haunts for potters and painters and orders started pouring, especially during festivals.
Eventually I walked into one of the shops filled with dolls that were for sale mainly for tourists. “With Vilachery becoming popular especially among foreign tourists, shops have now come up as well, ” added Vani. As I scanned the colourful melange of clay models of deities, humans, animals and toys arranged on the stands, my eyes fell on a quirky looking genie, painted in blue, grinning at me from a lamp as he seemed straight out of Aladdin’s world. ” You must buy him , he will bring you luck,” urged one of the potters laughing. I had to oblige. As I write this piece, he sits on a mantelpiece near my table grinning at me. I should probably try rubbing the lamp and see if the genie appears for real and will take me places.