In local parlance, there is a colourful usage of the term, Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai (Thanjavur Head-Bobbing Dolls) – it is attributed in jest, when accusing someone of being a 'Yes Man', mutely bobbing the head in assent to the boss' ideas!
While Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai is a generic term given to dolls made in Thanjavur, much confusion exists over which of the two prominent types is the real deal – the Dancing (bobblehead) Girl or the Tilting Doll.
The principle in a conventional bobblehead doll is that the head is linked to the base with a metal spring or a metal pivot. A tap on the head makes it bob.
The Dancing Girl is a variation of the bobblehead doll with not one, but three moving parts – the head, the chest and arms & the skirt-draped hips. Once assembled, barring the sturdy base composed of the doll's feet, the gentlest tap on the skirt can set the three parts in interlinked motion, thereby creating the effect of 'dancing'. There are other variations like a seated old couple where only the heads bob.
By the 'head bobbing' definition and its associated parlance, the Dancing Girl and the Old Couple should logically be regarded as Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai.
But if you drop the word 'Thalaiyatti' (head bobbing), the Government of India's Geographic Indication (GI) Registry indicates a variation of tilting dolls as authentic Thanjavur Dolls.
A Tilting Doll moves on the principle of equilibrium. The doll is hollow but has a weighted curved base that makes the entire doll bob and upright itself without toppling over.These dolls were traditionally used to improve fine motor skills of toddlers learning to crawl and grasp objects.
Bhoopathy, an artisan who crafts various types of dolls in Thanjavur tells us how the Thanjavur Tilting Doll, also called Gundu Chatti Bommai (Round Pot Doll) or Raja Rani Bommai are made. “Plaster of Paris and paper pulp are mixed along with tuber gum in a dough-like consistency. This dough is pressed into moulds to make the front and back panels of the doll. Once dry, the panels are removed from the moulds and paper is stuck on them. Tuber gum is used to seal the front and back of the hollow doll as well as the seam that joins the clay-filled rounded base. Once this is dry, the doll is smoothed with sandpaper and coloured with oil paint.”
Bhoopathy clarifies the difference between the two types, “The Dancing Girl is a doll with a stable base primarily for display during say, the annual Navaratri Kolu (a tiered display of dolls in Tamil Nadu, akin to the Japanese Hinamatsuri festival). However, the conventional Thanjavur Doll is actually a set of Tilting Dolls that are childrens' toys.”