669 words | 5 mintue read | Flesch–Kincaid readability score: Grade 8

“I did not see the face of my child: I passed into unconsciousness after her birth. My neighbours told me she was beautiful. My mother and the nurse buried her alive. I did not even hear her cry.”

A doll depicts a girl child and the words alongside it, movingly tells the tale of a new mother’s anguish at the brutal killing of her baby girl.

The doll has been made by Belgian-born Francoise Bosteels, who made India her home over 25 years ago. Francoise’s dolls ‘speak’. They speak of the beauty of life and its celebration, but also of the injustice, anger and frustration of those in despair.

Francoise's Dolls
Francoise’s Dolls [Illustration by Shiju George]
The little shepherd boy bending to cuddle his lamb, the widow in a white sari, the fish worker who has no fish to give to her children – each of Francoise’s dolls have a story to tell. Each one brings a certain kind of Indian alive.

The dolls are elegantly made and strike realistic poses. They are an expression of the dreams, hopes, discoveries, friendships, tears, protests and anger of their creator – Francoise. The ‘Deccan Herald’ wrote about her in an article.

Francoise came to India in 1974 to help the sick in the villages of Tamil Nadu. A nun who is also a nurse by training, Francoise became involved in the social and health education programmes and in leprosy prevention and care. It was in India that Francoise made a serious foray into doll making with a Christmas crib. But she had become aware of her artistic side much earlier, at seventeen. Confined to bed for months due to an illness, she had made her first doll.

In the course of her work in India, as she rode around the villages on her bicycle, she found that there was a lot to depict. There were many types of people – beggars, street children, landless labourers, widows, rape and dowry victims. All with varying reactions to situations around them.

So Francoise began to make dolls that addressed the troublesome issues plaguing the lives of the people. The exploitation, the poverty, the hunger, but at the same time, the joys and hope, too.

Francoise’s dolls are made of ordinary material. A variety of colourful cloth called feutre, strong paper ribbons, pipe cleaners, cotton balls for heads, wool, thread and discarded bobbins, silk and cotton cut-pieces, banana and coconut fibre, palm leaves, tamarind skin, bamboo, pieces of wood, small plastic boxes and bottles. Throwaway items that is recycled into beautiful pieces of art by the magical fingers of Francoise.

She also uses gold and silver threads to make a variety of jewellery. The figures of the dolls are held together with the help of thread and gum.

The dolls have one unusual feature – they are faceless. “That’s because these dolls could be anyone – from among the people that live around us. It could be me, you, us”, explains Francoise.

Faceless or not, they have become famous. At a workshop in Philippines on Globalisation and its Impact on People’s Life, Francoise was invited to present these dolls to illustrate some of the issues that came up during the workshop. It was here that some women participants suggested that a book be published with pictures of these dolls and brief write ups to go with them.

The dolls could help people understand such aspects of globalisation ( the process of moving towards a world in which people produce, distribute, sell, finance and invest without regard to national boundaries ), that tend to diminish the quality of life of people in poorer countries like India. So Francoise’s dolls are the subject of a beautifully brought out book ‘The Dolls Speak’, published by Better World Publications.

Francoise’s dolls are stark portrayals of those living on the margins of society. They tell everything as it is. These dolls have the ability to ‘speak’ eloquently about things that would take a lifetime of words to understand.