Indian dollmaker fights bone disease and finds online success through her craft

Confined to her home as a child, QueenBee Dolls founder who uses recycled newspapers is now a big hit on social media

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Diagnosed with brittle bone disease at the age of six and forced to quit school, Radhika J A spent much of her childhood within the confines of her home or a hospital room in India. Frequent fractures, multiple surgeries and a threatening spondylitis led to a life of isolation. By the time she tuned 10, she was diagnosed with depression.

To help her cope, Radhika's doctor suggested she pursued a passion. So she began to draw. “I always liked craft and used to make greeting cards as a kid,” she tells The National.

In 2016, she chanced upon a DIY wall-hanging video that peaked her interest and she set out to buy her own materials to make her first wall-hanging. Encouraged after neighbours began enquiring about her creation, Radhika began selling them for 100 rupees a piece.

Two years later, in 2018, her brother's friend, Manikandan, showed her a video tutorial on dollmaking. Not enthusiastic at first, but motivated by her brother Rajmohan’s encouragement, Radhika made her first doll in two days. Rajmohan realised she had an innate gift and urged her to make more.

Radhika's breakthrough moment came when she displayed her dolls at an expo for recycled art. She sold nearly two dozen of them at a modest 100 rupees each.

“Those were simple models compared to the ones I do now,” recalls Radhika, now 24. “The materials used were also simpler. The sales boosted my confidence and I began experimenting with new patterns and materials.

“By the end of 2018, my brother and I decided to create social media accounts to promote and sell our dolls. We realised that keeping the dolls within the confines of our home wasn't attracting the attention we needed.”

QueenBee Dolls soon attracted quite the following on social media.

“The Covid-19 pandemic boosted my sales as people spent more time on their phone. The only issue was that it was difficult to source materials,” Radhika recalls.

Crafted from recycled newspapers and embellished with colourful accessories, the vibrant dolls stand out for their intricate details. Radhika uses a variety of materials in the process, including acrylic paint, adhesives, pages of glossy magazines for doll faces as well as bamboo sticks. Dolls are based, coated with adhesive, dried, then skeletonised before tissue paper is added. Painting concludes the process and it takes an additional three hours for drying.

Due to her health problems, Radhika can sit only for two hours at a stretch. But the painstaking creative process is paying off. Today, from her home in Coimbatore, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, QueenBee Dolls are shipped across India and overseas. Dolls she once sold for 100 rupees each now earn Radhika between 5,000 and 25,000 rupees (up to Dh1,100) per month. Prices vary depending on the intricacy of the work required.

Paired dolls and wedding dolls are particularly in demand, and Radhika consistently expands her collection by experimenting with new designs.

For wedding couple dolls, she uses a bronze colour for the face and matches it to the skin tone. She is also not comfortable painting eyes and lips on a curvy face because it is not as easy as it is on canvas.

“In India, many people are reluctant to accept dolls with black faces because it's considered a bad omen,” says Radhika. “Customers have asked me to change the face colour, but I would not do it. Black faces and faceless dolls are what make my dolls unique.

This decision sometimes results in lost orders but she does not mind. Previously denied admission to school due to her ill health, Radhika is now invited to run workshops at various schools.

“I have experienced a life of lockdown for 18 years and completed my school education through homeschooling,” she says. “I hope to continue learning further, but dolls are both my part-time and full-time pursuits and they mean everything to me. I'm prepared to put everything else on the back seat as I continue to craft my dolls.”

When asked to choose her favourite doll, she replies: “All of them.”

Updated: January 04, 2024, 5:06 AM