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Fashion designer Uma Prajapati was sifting through emails at her office desk one sun-streaked afternoon in 2005, when a particular note caught her eye. It was from a young woman in Mumbai, India, who described her struggles with depression. At her lowest, she’d decided to commit suicide. The letter writer explained that as she was leaving her office for the last time, her eyes fell on a small scrap of a doll attached to a noticeboard. She paused to read the tag that accompanied it. The doll, it said, had been handmade by women from fishing communities who were rebuilding their lives after having lost everything during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In her letter, the woman explained that she was so struck by the sorrow and suffering that those women had endured that it helped put her own worries in perspective. “My life belongs to this little doll,” she wrote.
Prajapati was immensely touched by the note, but she wasn’t surprised. The diminutive doll known as Tsunamika, with her ponytailed hair and brightly colored frock, had been purpose built as an antidote to despair. By then, the initiative to create and distribute Tsunamikas had unexpectedly swelled from something Prajapati had devised on the spur of the moment to help women combat grief to something of a social movement.
It all began on a morning ridden with tragedy. The tsunami, one of the deadliest in history, had been triggered by a large underwater earthquake at 7:59 a.m. on December 26 and struck India soon after, destroying or severely damaging around 65,000 homes in the state of Tamil Nadu alone. Nearly 228,000 people were eventually reported dead or missing across more than a dozen countries, including thousands from India’s southern coast.
At the time of the tsunami, Prajapati, then 35, was having breakfast with her godmother in Auroville, a town that straddles Puducherry, a union territory governed directly by the federal government, and the state of Tamil Nadu. She felt uneasy as she looked up at the overcast sky, wondering why so many aircraft were hovering over the horizon. She didn’t know about the devastation less than 10 kilometers away, or that the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force had been immediately deployed for search and rescue operations, until she began to receive calls from friends and loved ones.
By 11:00 a.m., a rapid emergency rescue mission had been organized along the badly hit areas; 412 camps in Tamil Nadu and another 48 camps along the coastal belt of Puducherry popped up to shelter more than 350,000 people. It took Prajapati 15 minutes by bike to reach one of the camps, at Auroville Beach. Under a sprawling tent by the road, complete chaos reigned.
“Everyone was on the streets; disoriented, scared, and anxious,” she says. Most of the people affected were from fishing villages near Auroville, and they were wet and exhausted. In a matter of minutes, everything they’d owned had been snatched from them. Many had lost their homes. Others had to deal with a more irreparable loss as bodies washed up on shore, or they waited, generally in vain, for missing loved ones to appear. The cries of wailing children rent the air. Prajapati joined the volunteers who were attempting to comfort and gather the survivors.
Later in the day, on makeshift stoves in the corner of the tent, volunteers were trying to cook a meal for the survivors. “It was so chaotic that no one was able to focus,” says Prajapati. One of the organizers asked her to calm the children. “I had to think fast,” she says. Around her were 50 children ranging from ages five to 10 years. “Would you like to make dolls?” she asked a group of them. Prajapati’s design studio, Upasana, was one of the earliest labels in India to champion sustainable fashion for women, specializing in garments made from organic cottons and handloom weaves. A couple of years before, an intern at Upasana named Prema Viswanathan was researching an upcycling project as part of her diploma in fashion design. She was playing around with leftover cloth and had deftly designed a few little dolls. This activity, Prajapati thought, would be a great way to keep the younger children busy. She made a frantic call to her office: “Send bright colors, plenty of needles, and scissors,” she instructed. When the materials arrived, Prajapati recruited the nearest volunteers and assigned six kids to each of them. Soon, a doll-making workshop based on one of Viswanathan’s prototypes was underway, and silence descended on the camp. It was remarkable how the children focused on their task, says Prajapati. It brought much-needed calm to a panic-stricken day.
When she returned the next morning, the children had finished breakfast and were waiting for her. They wanted to make more dolls, they said. This time, their mothers joined them. Food was provided at the camps, and the women, the wives of fishers, felt purposeless. They began learning how to make the little dolls, as well.
The doll Prajapati showed them was particularly simple to craft and didn’t require any specialized needlework. With no arms or legs, the figure, just two to three centimeters long, is dominated by the solid colors of a tunic—a sheath of bright cloth—attached directly to the rounded face. Her eyes, two dark slashes, are framed by a full head of hair. A slash of thread represents the nose and mouth, and the doll looks like she’s deep in slumber.
The work consumed the doll makers’ time and minds, while linking them to a global tradition. People have been crafting dolls for thousands of years, first for religious and spiritual significance and eventually as toys. Today, many art therapists recognize dolls and doll making as powerful therapeutic tools. In a blog post, art therapist Ceara Genovesi wrote of dolls being “symbolic vessels and transitional objects. Dolls create a holding space for an individual’s emotions.” Wrapping and stitching are recognized by therapists and crafters as calming and meditative practices, providing space for self-reflection.
Months after that first doll-making workshop, Prajapati’s business partner, Manoj Pavitran, would name the doll Tsunamika—the daughter of the tsunami, born from the tragic churning of the ocean. The name came to him in meditation. “It felt like we’d received the name like a gift,” says Prajapati.
On the third day after the tsunami, fisherfolk tried to quell their fear of aftershocks and returned to their villages to begin cleaning, repairing, and rebuilding. Prajapati would visit regularly after work and see women staring vacantly into the distance, overcome with shock and grief.
She asked women she’d met at the relief camp if they would like to resume making dolls. They and many others from multiple villages embraced the opportunity, and soon the number of doll makers swelled to 600, eventually peaking at over 1,000. One of them was Mahalakshmi Natarajan, then 25 and living in the village of Bommayapalayam with her husband and two young sons. Most of her belongings had washed away, she says, but the loss of personal possessions was the least upsetting impact of the tsunami. “People had sounded the warning about the ocean looking strange that day. I rushed out of my home to see what they were talking about. When I saw the giant waves, I just grabbed my children and fled.” She didn’t have a chance to salvage anything or to help anyone else. Six people died in her village, including a 16-year-old girl she had been speaking with only moments before the tragedy. The girl had walked away after the conversation, and Natarajan had looked back just as the wave overtook her in the distance. “She was washed away, right in front of my eyes,” she says.
After the tragedy, people in her village were paralyzed with fear; many were reluctant to go out to fish. The doll-making workshop seemed like a godsend, says Natarajan.
In the early days, staff from Upasana would come to each of six villages badly affected by the tsunami to teach a doll-making workshop that spanned half a day. Eventually the villagers took over teaching one another. Each village elected two coordinators responsible for overseeing the quality of the work and for reporting to one another and to Upasana on their village’s progress.
The dolls were never made for commercial gain, says Prajapati: the priority “was always the emotional value, the healing from grief and trauma that it brought.” The doll project is part of a concept known as the gift economy—Tsunamikas are shared freely, and those who receive them are not obligated to support the initiative, though many do. Yet, Prajapati wanted to compensate the women for their labor, time, and skill. Early on in the effort, she managed to arrange funding through a program called the Auroville Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Project and from Concern India Foundation, a charitable trust that helps disadvantaged people become self-reliant. She promised that in return, the villagers could make one million dolls.
For many of the doll makers, the compensation they received was their first independent income, and it came during the most desperate financial crunch of their lives. They received a small payment, somewhere between US $13 and $57 a month—an average minimum wage at the time—and it was welcome, says Natarajan.
Prema Shankar, a 72-year-old Tsunamika team leader, who lives in a village west of Auroville, says her family didn’t suffer much loss in the tsunami and she didn’t really need the extra income because her husband’s job at a hostel was secure, but she saw how the dolls helped others in the community. She was skilled in embroidery and could teach the other women, supervising their stitching. “Every year, we celebrate the anniversary of the Tsunamika, because the doll wasn’t just an alternative means of livelihood. It helped many of us find a sense of purpose and a way out of tragedy,” she says. Staying focused on a target in those early months helped. “As a team leader, I’d wake up thinking we’d need to craft 200 dolls today.”
In the months after the tsunami, each of the six villages made around 150,000 dolls every month, she estimates. “On days that I can’t sleep, I’ve crafted the Tsunamika in the middle of the night, while listening to old songs,” Shankar says.
The doll makers continued to use scraps donated by Upasana and other textile manufacturers from around Auroville, and occasionally they bought waste from local tailors. “We never ran out of fabric,” says Prajapati. “Once, when we couldn’t find white material for the head, we used colored fabrics and called the colored faces of the doll the ‘Holi edition’” (referring to a spring festival in India where brightly colored powders are smeared on faces and clothes).
Looking back, Prajapati realizes that committing the doll makers to creating one million dolls was a rather wild idea, especially since she was working with women who were learning how to sew for the first time in their lives—yet, she believed they could do it. They fulfilled the promise. “And yet, no one wanted to stop,” says Prajapati. “The project had grown into a movement, bigger than I’d ever imagined.”
The dolls were given away to NGOs and local business organizations and distributed at events held in shopping malls, public parks, and schools. As more people shared the dolls, the story of the hardships faced by the fishing communities after the tsunami spread. By then, international aid organizations had donated money to rebuild flattened boats and homes, but the Tsunamika project helped people understand and empathize with the long-term emotional trauma experienced by the coastal villagers. “I’ve seen people who’ve received the Tsunamika change; she touched lives far beyond the borders of the fishing villages in which she was birthed,” says Prajapati.
This was evident when, in the winter of 2007, Prajapati visited Bilbao, Spain, to speak at an event organized by Lur Gozoa, one of many NGOs that donated to the Tsunamika project over the years after the initial funding ran out. Lur Guzoa raised funds locally and in return received dolls to distribute in its community.
After the event was over, during dinner, Prajapati met a bartender who asked her an unusual question. “Are you Tsunamika’s mother?” he asked.
His polo-necked shirt was peeking out of his woolen sweater, and attached to the collar was a Tsunamika. He had heard about the effort through Lur Gozoa and had dolls available at his bar for donations, which he collected in an empty beer pitcher. “He’d just contributed 600 euros [US $725] to the cause,” says Prajapati. “He said he’d run out of his stock of dolls already and that I’d need to send him more. I was very touched.”
The incident brought home to her how cultural differences could be overcome when people came together to deal with adversity.
In 2011, when a tsunami swept through mainland Japan, killing nearly 20,000 people, Upasana reached out to Peace Boat, an NGO based in Japan that uses international voyages by ship to promote peace, human rights, and sustainability. Prajapati and her staff hoped the NGO could help them deliver Tsunamikas to the affected communities in Japan.
“We transported 100,000 of the dolls from Kochi [where Peace Boat was docked in India] to Japan,” says Meri Joyce, a Peace Boat coordinator. The majority were distributed to community members in Ishinomaki, one of the cities hard hit by the disaster and where Peace Boat’s relief activities were centered. Peace Boat workers handed out the dolls to people who came to receive meals at soup kitchens or who were living in evacuation shelters and temporary housing. “They were received extremely warmly,” says Joyce. “Coming as a gift from someone else who understood the severity of the impact and the pain of the sorrow following the disaster meant a great deal.”
During her visits to the fishing villages over the years, Prajapati became keenly aware of other issues that were affecting them. The doll had quickly grown into a powerful symbol of hope, and she wondered how she could employ it to also raise awareness about ocean conservation. In 2008, Upasana produced two e-books featuring Tsunamika as the central character. Tsunamika Meets Friends tells the doll’s origin story, while Tsunamika: Ocean, my Home addresses marine pollution. An endorsement of the Tsunamika project by UNESCO that year helped the e-books gain a wider audience, and they were eventually translated from English into German, Russian, Danish, French, and Tamil.
On Tsunamika’s 10th birthday in January 2014, Upasana planned several events in the fishing communities to celebrate. A small visiting Finnish theater group performed what art director Liisa Isotalo calls “a lyrical lament.” It showed Tsunamika grief stricken at the damage humans have inflicted on the oceans, and was performed for hundreds of children in and around Auroville, as well as at schools and festivals in Finland.
Over the years, local NGOs have used the Tsunamika as a means to deliver their own messages about protecting the environment. “Every day, we grapple with how human actions impact the environment,” says Sunaina Mandeen, cofounder of Pondy Citizen’s Action Network (PondyCAN), a nonprofit in Puducherry addressing large-scale erosion of local beaches due to development. In Tsunamika, the group saw a powerful symbol that could help people better understand conservation messages. PondyCAN visited local schools with a three-meter-tall Tsunamika. “We told children how she was concerned about the health and well-being of the sea and of all the creatures that inhabit it,” Mandeen says.
The emotional appeal the doll had in the fishing communities lent a deeper impact to these messages. After all, the Tsunamika had been a constant presence in villagers’ lives.
The number of dolls the villagers make has ebbed and flowed over the years, but there have always been women working on the project, says Prajapati. Today, around 60 women are involved, including Shankar and Natarajan, who still enjoy the work 17 years later, though they produce fewer than they once did. Now, in addition to Tsunamika, they are crafting her “sister”—Karuna, whose name means compassion. The movement was launched in 2020 by Creative Dignity, a volunteer-driven collective powered by designers and craft councils across India to help artisans. Prajapati is a key volunteer and helped launch the campaign. Women from numerous states across India are now making the Karuna doll to provide a sense of strength and hope during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s possible that Karuna may someday eclipse Tsunamika, though at the moment, she’s not as well known.
In her village, Shankar is attempting to involve a younger generation in crafting, though she admits it’s an uphill task. “I try because it instills a sense of teamwork,” she says. “I tell the kids, I’ll make her face and you do the dress—we’ll work on her together. But this generation has no memory of the tsunami, and they don’t immediately understand the symbolic nature of the Tsunamika—how she came at a time when conquering adversity and moving on meant survival.”