Karuna lives for a good cause. She’s part of a women’s group, travels a lot for work, and is very particular about her wardrobe.

In each state she visits, she wears only local weaves, usually made by women’s organisations. It’s not hard to dress her though, since she’s only 8 inches high, and a doll.

The Karuna doll project was launched in September by Creative Dignity, a volunteer movement that began as a WhatsApp group in end-April, set up to help artisans hit by the pandemic.

Here’s how it works. The doll — essentially the concept — is loaned to one state at a time, through tie-ups with local NGOs and crafts organisations. These bodies then create their own version of the doll, weaving elements of their culture and their crafts into her costumes, accessories and tiny woven props. Sometimes she even gets a companion. She can be quite fluid (there are plans for a Hanuman avatar). And there’s a leather-puppet Karuna in the works.

Each state’s reimagined Karuna (the word is Hindi for Compassion) is then promoted and sold via Instagram, @CreativeDignity. Here the doll also gets to have her say, talking in social media posts about empathy, sustainability, gender equality and different local crafts.

So far the doll has gone from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar and Maharashtra. Proceeds from all sales go to the local artisans and organisations. “The aim is to cover the country in her yatra,” says Aradhna Nagpal, a volunteer with Creative Dignity who also set up and runs the Mumbai crafts studio Dhoop.

An artisan at work in Himachal Pradesh.
Photo courtesy The Color Caravan

A set of six dolls from her travels so far was released on October 11 and is priced at Rs 3,600. “So far, we have sold dolls worth Rs 2 lakh,” Nagpal says.

Karuna travels to Himachal Pradesh this month, then Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. In each state, she gets new nomenclature too.

In Tamil Nadu, where she started out, she has an elder cousin who is also part of her origin story. Tsunamika was launched in 2005 by crafts enthusiast and designer Uma Prajapati of Auroville’s Upasna Design Studio.

In the wake of the massive tidal wave of December 26, 2004, which devastated parts of coastal Tamil Nadu, Prajapati tied up with women from six coastal villages to launch an arts initiative to help them earn some money and try to process their feelings. At first, Tsunamika served as a grief-counselling aid. Then local women began making them as tributes to people they had lost. It quickly became an international aid initiative and, over 15 years, 6 million of the dolls have been distributed and sold across 80 countries.

The Karuna project aims to emulate this model. “Dolls evoke emotion, compassion, a sense of connection and that profound relationship with the mother. Tsunamika is a mother archetype and so is Karuna,” says Prajapati, who also designed Karuna and is the chapter head for Creative Dignity in Tamil Nadu.

The Karuna dolls here are made in forest colours by fisherwomen communities in the same six coastal villages near Auroville. The Karuna Doll from Kerala is named Kathakali and is accompanied by a storytelling parrot named Kathakili, both designed as finger puppets, made from woven fabric in the handloom village of Chendamangalam, which suffered heavy losses during the floods of 2018 and has now seen business hit hard again in the pandemic.

In Bihar, the Karuna doll is nicknamed Babuni and is made using upcycled handloom scrap embellished with sujjni embroidery, by women in Sheikhpura and Nasriganj, Patna. The crochet Karuna doll from Hisar, Haryana is called Kovid Kumari and was created through a community initiative by INTACH.

Maro from Rajasthan is made from upcycled rags and leheriya fabric, and is intended to resemble the Shekhawati women. The Maharashtra Karuna is Bhavani. She is made with rope and khann fabric in Nagpur. In October, in Himachal Pradesh, the crochet Karuna dolls, a man and a woman, posted about gender equality.

“In the first phase of the lockdown, most men working in the tourism sector, a mainstay of the state, were forced to stay home. It was all the more reason for us to get orders for our women and ensure that they took home some money,” says Swati Seth, founder of the social enterprise The Color Caravan, which is collaborating with artisans here. “That is one of the reasons we decided to participate in the Karuna doll project.”

In November, Karuna is in Karnataka, where she takes the form of a baby Hanuman doll which will be released during Diwali. Next, in Andhra Pradesh, she will be reinvented as a leather puppet.

Karuna will soon start to tell the stories of her creators too. “The aim now is to introduce the makers of these dolls to the world,” Nagpal says. “So other people who might have projects for them can reach out too.”

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