At 62, seated beside her 87-year-old mother in her art-heavy house in New Delhi, with three dogs and a cat nestling by her feet, Nimi Khanna is bustling with life. And with ideas. She wants to tell the world that the girl child is not a burden if she isn’t seen as one. This message comes in a little 18-inch doll, Ganga, who wears two smiles and layers of embroidered silks.
Khanna drew from her own life story to create Ganga. As an infant, she almost didn’t make it through after Partition. The reasons, however, were more social than political. Her mother, Surinder Chopra, was eight months pregnant when she boarded one of the last trains carrying Hindus from Pakistan to India in August 1947. Khanna’s father was already in India, making inquiries about his next bank posting, trying to set up a base for his young family.
Doll’s eye view: Designer Nimi Khanna at her residence in New Delhi with the Ganga doll in her lap. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
The journey was rife with danger. Chopra was travelling with two sons—aged 6 and 4—and a widowed sister-in-law in her 50s. En route to her husband in Kolkata Chopra and her sister-in-law managed to reach Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where Chopra delivered her baby in a makeshift room above a cow stable.
Minutes after Khanna’s birth, her aunt bundled her up in a jute sack and dumped her by a nallah (a drain). Those were difficult times and the aunt believed a girl child wasn’t worth the strain on their meagre resources.
When Khanna’s mother regained consciousness, her sister-in-law—also the midwife—told her the baby had been stillborn.
A barely conscious Chopra still pressed to see the dead child. Because she became maniacal, her sister-in-law reluctantly brought back the bundled infant. Miraculously, the girl was still breathing.
Today, that baby girl—Nimi Khanna—is married, with two sons and a flourishing career as an interior designer for luxury hotels. Khanna, who learnt about the story of her birth in bits and pieces, has forgiven her aunt, understanding that desperate times prompted such savagery. Her mother is less forgiving. As she recalls the horrific story, Chopra says that a baby boy would never have suffered a similar fate, even under tougher circumstances. “Kehte hain, chahe ladka hi tang kar le,” she trails off in Hindi—essentially summing up the prevalent belief that bringing up boys is worth the trouble no matter how tough the situation.
Chopra, however, saved her girl. And now her daughter, Nimi, wants to save other baby girls.
The story of Ganga
Since she first thought of the doll eight years ago, her plans for the Ganga Project keep expanding every day. “It’s a flowing energy, like the river that she is named after,” says Khanna.
Much like the red ribbon is synonymous with HIV the world over, Khanna is working towards making Ganga synonymous with the issue of the girl child in India. The doll isn’t up for sale. Khanna’s goal is to have the Indian government or a body such as the United Nations adopt Ganga as a symbol of the girl child movement. She is already working on poetry that will accompany the doll and envisions documentaries, films, theatre, outreach events and more literature.
She wants the doll to be adopted by every household and Ganga’s simple graphic form—a doll with two smiles—to become something every child can sketch.
Khanna believes that Ganga as a symbol will be able to penetrate the deeper consciousness of society. “We read reports of abandoned baby girls found in garbage bins ever so often. But these are just numbers. Ganga will give the millions of abandoned and underprivileged girl children in India a name, a face and an identity.”
It is evident that she has cerebralized every aspect of Ganga’s design. Ganga is an organic doll. Every part of her body holds a message: Her spine is filled with mustard seeds to signify heaven, her body is stuffed with cotton and neem leaves to connote tenderness and purity, her seven-layered skirts connote different emotions with their colours. She represents not just the cause of the girl child and her survival, but that of the Indian artisans who weave the silk she wears and the destitute women who embroider her zardozi jackets. Her underskirt is a needlework sampler in white muslin. “It’s the basic stitches of life, what mothers teach their daughters.”
Endorsement by companies such as ITC Welcomgroup has been a stepping stone for what Khanna envisions as the bigger Ganga initiative. For the last few months, Ganga has been greeting visitors at ITC lobbies.
Gautam Anand, vice-president, ITC Hotels, says that interested visitors can “adopt” a Ganga for Rs5,100. The proceeds go to the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay trust which conducts workshops for destitute women at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, New Delhi, where the dolls are handmade.
The project also has several high-profile supporters, such as film-maker Shekhar Kapur, who is related to Khanna, and Gaj Singh, the erstwhile maharaja of Jodhpur.
Over email, Kapur says that he loves the simplicity of Khanna’s message. He mentions possible plans for a film based on Ganga, adding that he’s keen on giving Ganga a platform wherever possible. In a way, he already has. His very poignant blog post on Khanna’s life story (in January) has drawn several more potential supporters to the project.
The maharaja of Jodhpur believes the campaign will work because symbols are emotive. “If projected sincerely and imaginatively, they (symbols) can have the desired effect,” he says. He has introduced Khanna to a couple of possible endorsers, in the hope that with more supporters Ganga can gather enough momentum to flow nationwide.
Khanna believes that not much will change for the girl child—her right to live, her nutrition, education and development—until Indian society internalizes the notion of a girl child as a gift. Kapur agrees in spirit. He believes that Ganga is a manifestation of the heart. “You have to adopt Ganga in your emotional being and think about these issues, talk about them and spread the word,” he says in an email interview.
The Ganga doll comes in varied avatars. The one we meet at Khanna’s house is a sun-worshipping Ganga dressed in the orange and red silks of Varanasi. Khanna speaks of another avatar—the ahimsa (non-violent) Ganga, which comes dressed in khadi and ahimsa silk. But there are several others in the making, and even more brewing inside Khanna’s head.
She wants people to create their own stories of Ganga. But essentially, Ganga’s story is Khanna’s own. The doll comes wrapped in a knit bag, much like the one she was thrown away in.