Khongbantabam Thoibi, 66, with her finished laidhibi (Courtesy: Akoijam Sunita)

In Conversation with Khongbantabam Thoibi

in Interview
Published on: 10 October 2019

Akoijam Sunita

Akoijam Sunita is an independent writer, researcher and filmmaker. She also translates works written in Manipuri to English.

Khongbantabam Thoibi is a laidbhibi (Manipuri cloth dolls) maker who has been making the dolls for about five decades now.

She is the recipient of the State Award for handicrafts for dolls and toys for the year 2008–09. She has also been conferred the title of ‘guru’ under the Guru Shishya Parampara Scheme of the Ministry of Culture. She trains many young people in doll making. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Akoijam Sunita on September 8, 2018 at Khongman, Imphal, Manipur.

Akoijam Sunita (AS): Tell us about your craft.

Khongbantabam Thoibi (KT): I am a doll maker. I make cloth dolls mainly. I used to sell stuffed toys too—sangai, other types of deer and giraffe, made out of sponge—in many markets of Manipur. There was a time I used to be told that the markets in the valley of Manipur are flooded with my products. But I fell ill and after that I could not reach the same level of productivity.

AS: How did you start doll making?

KT: Doll making is not for everyone. Today, you will find many people making dolls without following proper rituals. I started making dolls when I was 12. I got interested as I watched my maternal grandmother’s elder sister [who was also a doll maker] at work. She would ask me to help her make laidhibi. I would get annoyed with her for making me sit down to work as soon as I came back from school. But the annoyance soon transformed into interest. 

She used to sell her laidhibi near the temple. Two dolls used to cost 25 paise those days. I would accompany her and often told her, ‘Grandma, I will not make the kind of small dolls you are making. I will only make big dolls.’ She asked me if I was keen to learn. I said yes. So, she told me to do the ritual of boriba [consecration with offerings], where I paid her 10 paise. She became my guru. From then there was no looking back.

AS: Can you explain the ritual of boribaa a bit more elaborately?

KT: Our laidhibi is not just a doll. It is a living spirit. So, when a person learns the craft of laidhibi making, one should follow certain rituals to show respect to the spirit. During boriba, a person desiring to learn the craft offers a phanek [traditional Manipuri wraparound skirt] and some token money to the person who will be their guru. This is an old practice where the student seeks permission and blessings of the teacher to learn the craft of making laidhibi without facing any untoward experiences. If this ritual is not observed, the doll that is made will not ‘see or speak’. This translates to giving birth to physically deformed children in real life. I have six children and none have any problem since I had followed the ritual properly. 

AS: How different were the laidhibis made by your grandmother from the ones we see today?

KT: The first laidhibi I ever saw was the one made by my grandmother. She used to sell the laidhibhis she made in the market. They were very simple and made with whatever was easily available. For the potloi [bridal dress of Manipuri women] she used unused pages from our old school notebooks. The body of the potloi was coloured red using kaborei, a natural dyeing agent, and the border was painted green with another dyeing agent called reson tabi. Once the paper was dried, it was folded in the shape of a potloi and glued. No glittering objects were used. It was very simple. But today if the glitter is not enough, it is difficult to sell the laidhibi. 

AS: Share with us your journey of doll making.

KT: The initial years after I got married, I was not making dolls as I felt shy. By the time I had my third child, my husband took ill. The financial situation worsened and I realised that I have to do something to take care of my children. That is when I made my first set of dolls for selling. I took four dolls to Singjamei Keithel [a market in Imphal]. They were simple laidhibis wearing tonga-phanek [phanek without embroidery on the border]. Each doll was sold for Rs 12. It was a huge sum for me. I bought ration for the kitchen and raw materials to make more dolls. That is how I began. I did not rest those days. Once my dolls were sold, I would rush to buy the raw materials. I would come back home and start making dolls again. My eldest daughter, who was 14 at that time, used to make dolls with me. I started getting orders for more dolls. That is when I told my daughter that we will not die. We had found our source of livelihood. 

AS: Have you received any awards?

KT: As my dolls gained popularity, I was given awards, certificates and felicitations at many places by the related government departments. Recognition is good but as someone struggling with poverty I often told them, ‘If you are giving me money, I will accept gladly but if you are giving me papers [certificates], they will be only papers to start my kitchen fire.’ I do not look down on recognition but at that time money was what I needed. With money I could buy more raw materials and my production could increase. Those days I had no idea about the value of certificates. 

AS: Apart from the awards, have you received any other support from the government? 

KT: I trained 10 people in doll making for six months under the Guru Shishya Parampara. The next batch will be of 15 people. But there are some obstacles and I have not yet received the go-ahead from the government departments. In 2007, I gave a demonstration on traditional Manipuri doll making in Delhi. From time to time, I am invited to teach this craft to schoolchildren. 

AS: When and how did you start getting recognition from the government?

KT: I cannot remember the year. One day the president and secretary of the market came to me and placed order for three special dolls. They said they had gone to the handloom stores but the dolls there were small and the handwork was not neat. So, they gave me the money to buy the required raw materials. Later, I came to know the dolls were to be presented to Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister of India. 

When the dolls were given to Rajiv Gandhi, he asked who made these and where they were sold. I was called for a brief meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. He shook hands with me. In my memory, that was the starting point of government recognition. After that I went to many big government offices. You know, I did not go to these offices because I was educated but because of my handiwork. Soon, I was invited for exhibitions and called to conduct trainings in the state as well as outside. Many people, including foreigners, came to buy my dolls. People wondered how I would communicate to sell my products. I think I managed quite well, speaking in a mixture of English, Hindi and lots of Meiteilon.

AS: So, you were lucky to get recognition from the government’s side.

KT: In a way, yes. But I cannot fully agree. Today, only those who are well connected and have resources are able to avail benefits under government schemes. 

I cannot go around pleading and dealing with officials. Even if I cannot avail government schemes, I can survive. I have single-handedly taken care of my family of eight. Look at that house. It was built by me, a woman who had nothing. It was the government officials who asked me to apply for certain schemes. For that I had to run around a lot from one department to another. It cost me a lot on conveyance and other expenses. I do not care for government’s generosity at this age. If they cannot fulfil, government should not give hope.

AS: How were your experiences of travelling outside Manipur with your laidhibi?

KT: I was surprised to learn that people outside our state do not like our dolls with hair. They prefer the koktumbi [dolls with a conical head made popular by the raslila dance]. When I had gone to Delhi, Kanpur, Jaipur, all the koktumbi were sold and the ones with hair remained untouched. After figuring out what was in demand, I started making more and more of the popular ones when I came back after the exhibitions at night. Those who came along with me said that the laidhibi really had some power and helped me sell as much as possible. 

Unlike others who went to exhibit with fixed and final products, I went with raw materials so that I could make as per demand. If I sold three dolls, I added four more [of the kind]. If I sold four, I added five more. So, I had a good time selling my products.   

AS: How many laidhibis can you make in a day?

KT: I can make around five doll heads. The head, especially the face, is the most challenging part. There should be symmetry, proportion of the different parts of the face. The eyes are especially tough. These days there is a demand for laidhibi with eyelashes. That takes extra effort. So, I spend most of my nights with my needles and thread sewing the eyes, nose and lips. 

Laidhibis do not speak but that does not mean they are not alive. They have a soul inside. Sometimes when I try to make a particular laidhibi wear a potloi, it just refuses. It is not verbal refusal but for unknown reasons I just cannot make that laidhibi wear the potloi. So, I have to make a completely new potloi. It is very frustrating but I have to respect their wishes. 

AS: Given your long and very rich experience, what do you think is the future of this craft?

KT: Honestly, I feel sad that my knowledge will end with me. These days many people who are making laidhibi have no idea about the craft. They just go ahead and make laidhibi to sell and earn money. I am worried that the realities and history of this craft will die without proper documentation and recordings. This is a craft we need to save. 

The younger generation is not very drawn to handicraft. Traditional dolls cannot be replaced by plastic dolls. They are intimately linked to our culture. Our dolls are used for important rituals. They are not ordinary dolls.

AS: Are you pessimistic about the future of laidhibi making?

KT: These days many young people who have finished their BA or MA come into our field as they cannot find employment. Handicraft was traditionally mostly done by uneducated people blessed with dextrous hands. But these days, educated people are taking it up too. They have an advantage which my generation lacked: they cannot be taken advantage of as easily. Many like me who are uneducated are often taken for a ride. I am not pessimistic. But I hope they understand and respect that this is not just a profession one gets into to earn money; it is our history, our culture. One should keep in mind that laidhibis are living spirits.