There are no written records but perhaps dolls were one of the oldest toys known to humans. Made from easily available materials like clay, wood, fur and cloth, they replicate human and animal forms. From being mere playthings to being used in religious rituals and black magic, dolls have been people’s companions from time immemorial, and it is still rare for children to grow up without owning or wanting to own a doll.
Growing up in Manipur in the 1980s and 1990s, I played with dolls made at home from rags and pieces of cloth collected from local tailors. The absence of facial features was compensated by a colourful thread running vertically through the centre of the face. Their hair was made of pieces of black cloth, wrapped like a scarf around the forehead. The body was also made from cloth. The doll would be complete once it was dressed up in miniature phanek and phi (the upper and lower garment worn by Meitei women).
Dolls are called laiphadibi (the commonly used version is laidhibi) in Meiteilon. The word is made up of ‘lai’ which means god and ‘phadi’ which means a shabby piece of cloth. The last syllabi ‘bi’ denotes the feminine gender. So, laiphadibi is a feminine image of god made from shabby clothes. These dolls are treated as living spirits with feelings. They are always called ‘ita’, meaning a female companion.
After an early lunch, the children, usually girls, would gather at the porch of a friend’s house, each with their bamboo basket. Children would take the laidhibi out from the basket and enact the life they saw around them, giving each laidhibi a role and responsibility observed in the adults’ world. When the play session was over, the laidhibi would be carefully placed inside a basket. They would be placed in a horizontal position, sleeping on a folded cloth that worked as mattress and pillow, and lovingly tucked under a blanket. They would sleep till the next play session.
Laidhibis are also used in ritualistic practices. If a person dies on a Thursday, the first day of the month as per lunar calendar, or on any other day that is considered inauspicious in Meitei culture, two dolls are placed on the grave of the person after the funeral. The shaman directs the two dolls to fulfil two different tasks—one has to open the door for the living and the other has to shut the door for the dead. This ensures that there are no untimely deaths in the family. Laidhibis are also used in ushin-toubaand chabanthaba (rituals where offerings are made to appease spirits to end a spell of disease or calamity). They are offered along with other offerings to appease spirits from causing harm to a person or a family. They are also used as mediums for conducting black magic.
The relevance of laidhibi in the realm of religion and ritual has remained the same but the physical form of laidhibi, with time, has undergone a sea change. The simple laidhibi made from rags have been replaced by those wearing colourful and ornate potloi (ornamental lower dress), elaborate jewellery and accessories. There are laidhibis wearing ghagra, perfectly fitting blouses and those with delicate wings. Influences of Disney characters such as Cinderella, Anna and Elsa are unmistakable. Some doll makers even include long eyelashes, which is not a Mongoloid feature.
Keeping in mind the fast-changing demands, laidhibi craftspeople are changing their craft while retaining the essentials of the tradition and culture passed down over generations. While older craftspeople mourn the loss of spiritualism in making laidhibi, many younger craftspeople see the profession as a means of earning a livelihood and cater to the demands of the market.