On Dolls

She was about half my age when I first met her, although we had heard stories about her constantly expanding family of dolls. We spent some time together one summer when she came to visit her aunt, my mentor.  An intensely curious young girl in a quiet sort of way, one always got the impression that there was a parallel world that she inhabited which was infused with other creatures. So many years later, I caught up with her – now a market researcher with two lovely girls of her own – and the memory of her ‘alternate family’ came rushing back. At Masala Chai, we are so glad that she agreed to feature in this post: ‘On Dolls’, where we get a glimpse of the imaginary world of relationships, one that emerged as a constant commentary on the real one.


By Yeshwanti Balagopal

I was known for having hundreds of them. People marvelled at my “doll collection”, wondered why I needed so many, sneered at some that looked a little the worse for wear, mocked me for loving them well into my “tweens”. And I never understood why. Because it was never just a “doll collection” for me. Each of those creatures – dolls, teddy bears, stuffed animals of various shapes and sizes was for me a living, sentient being. Each, when it was acquired, was lovingly named and given a special place in my heart. Some were more talented than others – Jacqueline was a blonde, blue-eyed “walkie-talkie” – but Sagari had a cloth body and painted papier-mâché face that had chipped away over the years until it looked like a patchwork quilt. But no one doll was any more or less in my esteem. Yes, some had the sheen of novelty and were played with incessantly when they were first acquired, but these may have been expensive or something I made myself from an old sock and some wool. My dolls were never thrown around, flung on the floor, treated roughly, because they all had feelings. If anyone else treated them badly I would rush to their aid, causing much hilarity amongst people on occasion. But to me they were real people and it hurt me that others didn’t see that.

What was my relationship with them? It varied. I know that I was always their protector. I would always be there for them through thick and thin and never let any harm come to them. Depending on the game of the day, each took on different roles. Some became my children, or my children’s friends. Sometimes they were my students and I their teacher, all neatly lined up in rows. Sometimes I went camping in another room with a bundle of food and clothes and they were my fellow travellers. The stuffed dogs were often put on a leash and dragged all over, a substitute for the real dog I wanted but never had. The bears were anthropomorphically dressed in doll clothes and sometimes given earrings.Dolls3

Choosing a name for a new acquisition was an involved exercise, and often the whole family was roped in. The ethnic origin of the name had to match the origin of the doll, or its appearance. Two dolls could never have the same name (would you call your children the same name?) so much thought would be put into coming up with something original. I think these also helped cement them in my head as separate, unique entities. Josephine the blue sausage dog was completely different from Mumfie the boy doll I made myself with my mother’s help (he had a woven shirt and blue denim shorts and was named after a character in a book I read[1]) who was completely different from Tubby. Nandita, a bear originally named Tubby, was rechristened after I met a young lady I loved deeply! And these were very different not because they looked so different from each other but because each had a name and a unique personality.

I also remember the excitement and anticipation that heralded the arrival of a new being into my life. I was lucky enough to have a dad who travelled a lot and was willing to indulge me in my passion. So each trip he made, I would wait with bated breath to see who would emerge from the suitcase. Who would this person be? Male or female? Cuddly or hard? Clothed or not? Would I love them and they me? Of course I always loved them – I can’t remember a single doll I didn’t like – and made sure they felt welcomed and loved, for it must have been scary travelling many miles to end up in a new place – if I was uncertain of being loved by them, what must they have been going through? Elaborate introductions would be made to the occupants of the doll cupboard, with strict instructions to be nice. And of course they always were – no-one in my world wasn’t!

Reflecting on all of this now – what did all that play mean? Why was it important to me? I realise some of it was just a reflection of the happy family I grew up in – never any harsh words, certainly no physical punishment, just a live and let live policy and a world full of love. And this I modelled myself on, and strived to provide to my dolls. Some of it was, as the youngest in the family, an opportunity to “give gyan” to people less knowledgeable than myself, who couldn’t answer back or tell me something I didn’t know! The empathy – did I learn it through play, or was it always a part of me? I don’t know. The comfort – of always being surrounded by beings you loved and who loved you back unconditionally. They were my world. And I sometimes think today, when I am dealing with kids of my own and my dog, that it doesn’t feel very different from those days of make-believe – because those were real people too.

Commentary: Work, Play and the World of Childhood

All children play, using the involvement to express themselves, take on roles, manipulate materials, solve problems and engage in imaginary worlds. Yet, what they play with and the ways in which they play differs on account of social and material surroundings. Where children are engaged in real work, this seems to become reflected in their play. Where there is greater difference in adult work between the sexes, children’s play mirrors those differences[2]. Play seems to mirror real life. As the author of our post realizes: “….some of it was just a reflection of the happy family I grew up in”. Children play for a variety of reasons, and sometimes even without reason.

The conventional dichotomy between work and play is misleading and becomes blurred when we watch children playing. Often, children have to suffer the consequences of this partition by adults when they are forced to abandon one (play) for the other (work). Not only do children play seriously, but play has many uses that are likely to go unnoticed. As developmental psychologists have also noted, child’s play is serious work. From reading Yeshi’s post, it is quite evident that the relationship she had with her dolls was not just playful; although it was play in the technical sense of the word. She had a serious engagement with them and was quite unhappy when others couldn’t see that.

What do adults do while children play?

It varies. Adults can be supportive of play, actually making time and effort and providing materials to play with, sometimes they may oppose play as a ‘waste of time’ or else, they may simply ignore children while they play, treating it as something natural to childhood. The point is that all children will find time, material and opportunity to play, except under grievously precarious circumstances. Children require only opportunity and not instigation to play. In the words of Dr. Anandalakshmy, children will benefit a lot by some “judicious neglect” to do their own thing, play in their own ways.

Play with dolls2017-06-28-PHOTO-00000300

There is something universal about play with dolls. Wikipedia defines dolls as models of humans that often (but not always) function as toys for children. Evidence of dolls in religious and social customs[3] is available across cultures and time-periods, and are used for display, decoration or devotion. The Shankar’s Doll Museum in Delhi exhibits a staggering collection of around 6,500 odd dolls from 85 different countries[4]. A visit to the museum is a must if you’re a doll enthusiast, and even if you’re not. Another delightful collection is to be found in the Losel Doll Museum in the IMG-20170627-WA0006Norbulingka Institute, a Tibetan culture centre in Dharamsala (See picture).

Are all children drawn to dolls? Are all dolls attractive to children? To find answers, we will invoke some of our field experiences. In several research projects, we carried hand-made dolls as props for engaging children, sometimes incorporating them into playful activities aimed at studying some aspect of children’s minds. Although most children were instantly attracted by these objects with child-like garments and woollen hair, some were terrified. For instance, Shashi and Reshu[5] remember a young girl from Delhi, who instantly cringed at the sight of the doll and threw it away as if it would bite her. “Bhoot, bhoot” cried another child when the doll was taken out of a bag, unwilling to return to the tasks until the doll was hidden away. The dolls we used in our Theory of Mind task in rural homes generated contrasting reactions, some children were terrified, others were fascinated, staring speechlessly, still others wanted to hide them away to play with them later, while some engaged with them quite willingly and would be reluctant to let them go. In one instance a young girl gave several names to the doll during the session, and it was discovered that all these names were the ones the family used with her. The doll was her! 19095841_10154746236598367_1336735059_oAnother observation by Punya Pillai at the Tibetan museum she visited recently, was of a young girl who kept tugging at her mother and asking “But where are the dolls?” The museum pieces, out of reach for her to play with didn’t count! In our work, no particular gender differences were noticed in these reactions, although other studies have indicated that girls take greater interest in role-play in comparison with boys who prefer more physical activity[6]. There was no denying that children in villages were more fascinated with dolls and had more intense reactions to them, whereas children in cities were moderate in the reactions. The presence of dolls was much higher in urban homes. Also, as adults, we are not likely to provide dolls for boys to play with for some strange reason, although little models of superheroes would also count as dolls of a kind. Some of the very life-like new-born dolls that kids carry around these days look terrifyingly real for someone who hasn’t seen them before.

Cultural differences in doll play

This brings us to the issue of cultural differences in play with dolls. One of the most interesting findings related to doll-play is that communities where children had greater access to real babies, there was less evidence of the presence of dolls[7] and vice versa! Can we assume therefore that dolls as toys arrived because children were increasingly becoming distanced from experiencing real babies? Whatever the reasons for their emergence, we can see how valuable dolls are for children. Yeshwanti’s story demonstrates that dolls can provide a rich, imaginary world for children to inhabit, providing a great deal of intense engagement, sometimes reflecting real events (origin of the dolls) and sometimes compensating for a felt absence (of a dog). Children take to them as serious play partners, some as family members, some treat them as just another toy and some are frightened of them. As always, we end by saying that there is no prescribed way of playing with dolls, no recommended pattern for boys and girls, except to say that children should be allowed their ways to play, and for that, we should know when to indulge and when to leave them alone. Parenting is mostly, a balancing act, between the world, yourself and your child!

Picture credits: Punya Pillai, Pooja Bhargava, Shashi Shukla

Further readings and other references

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Adventures_of_Mumfie

[2] http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=famconfacpub

[3] See this link for an interesting example of the Kolu dolls: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-downtown/Thematic-Kolu-a-fascinating-experience/article15774926.ece

[4] http://www.mapsofindia.com/my-india/travel/the-iconic-dolls-museum-in-delhi

[5] Shashi Shukla and Reshu Tomar

[6] http://www.academia.edu/11264818/Socialization_of_Boys_and_Girls_in_Natural_Contexts

[7] http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=famcon



  1. An engaging piece, Yeshie! Bruno Bettelheim discusses the value of fairy stories in enhancing the fantasy life of children ( in contrast to Montessori’s approach) and your article reflects his view.

    I was also wondering about young boys being deprived this chance. If one visited a family, without notice, I wonder if the little boy in the home would be playing with a doll. Probably not, given the rigid gender socialization prevailing in India. But I recall an instance, of Prof. Bettye Caldwell going to one of the Mobile Creches centres on her way to our meeting at NCERT. She found all the children engaged in varied activities and noticed one little boy sitting in a corner, with a doll on his lap. She commented that this reflected the quality of the programme.
    Good to have masala chai on a Friday morning’s tea break.


    1. Thank you so much Dr. Anandalakshmy. Your comment says a lot. Proud to be your shishya. We did mention Bettelheim in the last post for his “uses of enchantment”. Meanwhile, one of our collaborators who has a young son looked around the home and noticed he had only one neglected thing that could be seen as doll-like. It is also true that the market suggests sex-specific play materials and since many of the toys are gifts, the choice is seldom thought out. Regarding guns, I remember being averse to giving my boys guns, only to see them in their play group, cocking their forefinger in an intense match between friends! 🙄
      Again, thank you so much for your comment. Would love to hear from you regularly. 🙏🏽


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