Sundari Gopi Dolls – A Traditional Play Propagating Stories Of Krishna

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Gopi Dolls is at the heart of its creator Nandini Zaldivar, who is a professional artist, and Deity painter. Presently living in Pottsville Beach, New South Wales, Australia, Nandini grew up in America as a Hare Krishna devotee from Alachua, as her parents were disciples of Srila Prabhupada. Now, a mother of two daughters, Nandini passes on the same tradition inherited from her parents in a playful way. While Nandini played with Barbies all her childhood, she wanted her daughters to have dolls resembling their culture. Each of her creations is unique with a story sewed into it, and is now a large part of a number of children’s fantasy worlds, encouraging play and learning simultaneously. What initially started as a hobby of dressing up Barbies into Gopi Doll traditional outfits, has become sensational quickly. In conversation with Nandini, we found out about: 

Nandini Zaldivar – The Composer

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I have been designing dolls for many years now. Besides dolls, I also sell prints, photography, and other artwork that I make. Additionally, I do Mehendi Art for fun sometimes, which is usually for friends and family, and their weddings, parties, and to entertain my kids. This is generally done with acrylic paints than with traditional cones, which I find a lot easier to control, and since several people are not comfortable committing to the stains, especially those who work and cannot go to their workplace with permanent hand paints. Presently, I am not offering it as a professional service. 

Talking about my education, I have formal training in Fine Arts as I have been doing arts all my life. I grew up observing my mother’s artistic creations who then taught me sewing, painting, and drawing as I overlooked her shoulders. She used to sew for the Hare Krishna Temple in New Raman Reti Farm in Alachua for the Radhe Krishna deities. She used to do beading, jewelry designing, backdrop making, garland making, and most importantly, she decorated my Barbie dolls, and I suppose it is safe to say that she created the first ever Gopi Doll. Inspired, I took art classes, and when I graduated from high school, I was awarded a scholarship for my academics, only to later switch to Arts Major where my whole world opened up. I went to art shows, and won accolades at university level. 

The Beginning of Gopi Dolls

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Born and brought up in a family of Krishna worshippers, my daughters inherited the same culture. What I initially created as a fun hobby for my daughters in 2008-09 were Hare Krishna Barbies for playing dress up. I started sewing them by hand as I did not own a sewing machine back when I was still new to Australia. With no intent of converting this hobby into a business in mind, my daughter’s friends inquired about where she found these dolls from. Upon responding, “My mommy made them,” I received requests from their moms to make them similar Gopi Dolls – my first unexpected commission work.

When I later moved to another town where I owned a little thrift store, I was suggested to add my Gopi Dolls to the collection. With a number of Krishna devotees from Sydney, they spotted me near the Hare Krishna Farm with my Gopi Dolls, willing to spend their money to buy them. That is when I came across the term ‘Adult Doll Collectors’, and that there is an actual market for these collectors. With the inception of Instagram, a whole movement of OOAK (One Of A Kind) dolls began, when people began describing their dissatisfaction with the customized barbies. Either the factory paint, clothing, and hair disappointed them, or they were really looking forward to a variety in terms of tradition. With the inclusion of different body types, made-to-move, articulated Barbies, it was an opportunity for me to decorate them in line with the vedas and mythology. 

Conversion to a Business Model 

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In 2008, the same year I started creating Gopi Doll clothing, my friend who is a Computer Programmer asked me to put this on Facebook without any further ado. Initially timid, I was motivated to create a simple profile, and to my surprise the news went around the other parts of the world. With it reaching my native town of Florida, a lot of friends and family requested to buy it for themselves as well as for their daughters. The rest is now history. 

Gopi Dolls Fashion 

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Gopi Dolls Fashion was a rather side chapter of Gopi Dolls, specifically for clothing and redressing ideas. The motive was to sell outfits separately if one already owned a doll. Presently, I also sell individual jewelry pieces, salwar kameez and anarkalis

Gopi Dolls – A Narrative of the Secondary Characters 

Interviewer: One thing that really intrigues me is that while Rasleela talks about the dance of Krishna and Radha as protagonists with Gopis/Sakhis as supporting characters, you, by setting up ‘Gopi Dolls’ are introducing little girls and boys to a world beyond the Great Krishna, it is in a way revolutionary, to popularize the background characters. You are motivating these kids to look beyond the popular narrative. How were you inspired that Gopis would be the central character of your little world? 

Although it was not a thoughtful thing, it began as a challenge posed to painting Ken as Krishna. From loving female fashion, to recreating vedic scriptures, I learnt that worshiping devotees close to Krishna can get you closer to Him. Each time I create a Gopi and no Krishna, I suggest a mood of separation which is spoken in Rasleela when he leaves for Dwarka. My Gopis miss him, and I always create them keeping in mind that mood. 

Ken to Krishna 

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I love Lord Krishna. I have created many Krishna dolls over the years, and I intend to continue making them. The process however is not a cakewalk: the skin is plastic and slippery, as a

result, it is not as easy to paint the face so well. It either peels the eye or does not stay. I am waiting to create something of good quality, so that my Gopis and Krishna are not forever in separation. 

Naming the Gopi Dolls 

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One of my favorite collections or series so far is called the Queens of Dwarka. Now, the nomenclature requires its research, therefore I sat and read about all the primary Queens; mind you, there are more than just the primary ones. First I created many Queen Rukmanis. I referred to her description and created her accordingly. Next is Queen Kalindi who is characterized as one having a dark skin tone. For Tulsi Maharani, the theme was deciphered as that of the holy plant tulsi, hence drawing a green veil, with her holding a parrot (since the doll had a holding hand), and many peacock feathers. Then there is Govinda Nandini, who is not named after me but chosen by a friend who requested for her. 

At times, I do not dedicatedly follow the descriptions. For instance, I Google certain names and their meanings, and create a doll accordingly. Every so often, my daughters suggest names. Like this one time, she came up with the name of Sabala, after Cow Sabala with a peacock tail (backstory: Vashistha had a cow called Sabala. It was a divine being and the moment she was instructed to arrange for the feast, she yielded sugarcanes and all its produce such as sugar, jaggery, sweet wines). Therefore, Sabala had a peacock theme, starting from her outfit, to a peacock feather in her hair. Other beautiful names of my Gopi Dolls are Dhruva, Damayanti, and Ishwari. 

The Imagination behind the Imagery

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In every Instagram post, or the paintings that I sell, you would often distinguish the background as green lush gardens, with pots, a little paalna, and some animal imagery of monkeys, and cows. Each background is inspired by either beach walks, stories that I hear at Krishna park, or from reading vedic scriptures. I have a mass collection of stuff such as animals to add to the scenery. 

The last scenery that I worked on was Mother Yashoda and Baby Krishna. Having made a number of them, coming with new setups is demanding as I did not want to use the same materials again and again. So, I dressed them up in the same fabric but in a different style, and added new things that I bought six months ago such as the harmonium, and some hanging pots. I am also inspired by other creators who use the altar next to a window from where life spills in. This one time, it was raining and it looked surreal. I also love doing garden shots as I own one big garden. 

Other Mythological Characters

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I created a Ravana doll as a custom request for a man who is a theater actor from Sydney of Indian descent, who happened to stumble upon my page. For his Diwali play, he was playing the role of Ravana, and wanted to create a doll that looked exactly like him. Although it was out of my comfort zone, I was anxious about how my fan base would react. To my surprise, they were awestruck! I can only imagine the fun in creating Rama, Laxman, Sita, Hanuman, and Ravana as a whole dramatic Ramayana world for kids. 

The Challenges 

There are plenty of challenges that I face as an artist, but then Lord Krishna guides my hand to overcome them. The biggest challenge is repainting their faces to give them a traditional makeup, combined with a contemporary feel so that my customers relate to them, yet trying not to defy the vedas since they have their own set of rules. Secondly, I mess up all the time – failing in matching one eye to the other, wiping it off, respraying, removing glue from the face, and then fixing the mess for several hours. Sometimes, a doll can take upto two hours and yet some can take upto two years. Contentedly, all this is worth the lesson. 

To overcome these challenges, I often go for beach walks as Pottsville Beach is close to my home. The energy is constantly renewing with every wave releasing my stress, to come back all refreshed, renewed, and ready to start something new. Eat a pizza, read some book, watch something beautiful, observe other vedic artists, check my social media, read and respond to a few letters, until a few ideas pop up in my head – for me stepping back for a while is the solution. 

The Reception 

Krishna dolls are mostly custom ordered, so I imagine they are what are the most preferred. I am not regularly creating Krishna and Radha dolls, so it is safe to say that I keep my audience hankering for more. And, the baby Krishnas never last as they get sold straight away in the flick of a finger. 

Future Plans 

Recently, I launched Gopi Doll Plushie, and her name is Princess Jambavati (backstory: Princess Jambavati is the daughter of King Jambavan who grows up to marry Lord Krishna and becomes one of the prominent Queens of Dwarka). All of her accessories are made to come off as well as can be put back on. I have also been contacted for manufacturing Gopi Dolls on a large scale, but presently I am being really cautious and waiting for the right moment. In the time to come, many new dolls will be launched who are now under creation, especially many baby Krishna Dolls. Moreover, over the years I have collected many dolls besides Barbies, Integrity Toys, and Disney Princesses, which are really cute. As my New Year’s resolution, I decided to go through my box of dolls and start working on them because why not! There are many more dolls that I will be launching in bigger quality, although truth be told, I am still testing out my paints, but for now they continue to be a secret as big ideas need the time. Presently, I am

working on a couples’ outfits who are getting married in September, for whom I am outsourcing and ordering many pieces from both India and Australia. 

Send across your dolls for a spectacular transformation 

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People (particularly parents) send me their dolls all the time, either second hand bought at an op shop, or a brand new doll. They often attach a reference in the form of photos or descriptions, based on which I fix their hair, paint and re-design their faces, and redress them traditionally. Previously, one of my clients sent me a very expensive doll, mind you it was not a Barbie but a Fashion Royalty by Integrity Toys, costing approximately $900 doll! The inspiration she sent along was that of Deepika Padukone, who was then transformed into Ishwari, a traditional yet contemporary bride for her daughter who is half-Indian. She said this would be reminiscent of her heritage with which she could grow up. Not to miss, I also receive requests for custom faces. 

You can reach out to Nandini in one of the following ways: 

The old school way of Gmail on gopidolls@gmail.com, her Etsy shop, Pinterest, her main account on Instagram through a DM, or a comment. Get your hands on a Gopi Doll today!

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