Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An artist's journey.........

Labor. of. Love.

These were the first words that came to mind when I stumbled across "The Dollhouse Diaries: My Maharaja's Palace". Followed by "oh, that's pretty", "wow", "she made this??!!!", you get the picture!!...I couldn't  scroll down fast enough.........picture after picture, room after room conceived and lovingly recreated in miniature. Behind the scenes, I could just  picture her, researching each plot (because it is not enough for her to just build a room, often from the ground up,....there are stories to be told as well!) 

Miniature "charpai" with a lovely bedspread!!

Such a pretty window!

I'd like to take you on a journey with me, to wonderful Singapore, to meet Susan or Sans! as she is affectionately called. Sans!' art is unique as she works in the world of miniatures...she casts her spell on empty-shell dollhouses to recreate palaces and huts filled with beautifully detailed interiors. Each room is populated with little people, with intriguing stories of their own to share...........

"Pillows on bed".

Handcrafted "juttis" for her little people........

I had put a few questions to her, curious to know of her journey.... She writes:

"My focus is Indian culture which is a bit of an obsession with me at the moment. As I research more for my dollhouses, I am beginning to really appreciate how much of an influence India and its culture has over the rest of the world. Even today, I am amazed at how much of what people use in their daily lives across the universe, were actually handmade in India :)."

Handmade "toran".

Read on..............................

GB:  How/when did you start designing dollhouses?

Sans!:  It was Christmas 2008 when my housemate, who owned (still does) an events company, held a "Home For Christmas" themed event at a huge mall in Singapore. The event featured 4 dollhouses especially flown in from the States together with furniture. I was roped in to help decorate the houses over a very short time. I stayed up sleepless for 48 houses doing up the Queen Anne, the biggest dollhouse and completed it. Looking back, I see now that the work that I did then was really amateurish. :) and I would never again attempt to decorate a house of that scale in such a short time! :). You can view them here :) .  . Quite awful really. :) Anyway, that was when I was hooked.

It was in Jan 2009 that I made my 1st miniature , a set of silver goblets that have fallen apart since..haha! That month I also made a book on miniature Indian painting :).- Maybe someone can finally tell me whether the Sanskrit words are correctly placed..haha! I thought it was "interesting" to make a miniature book on miniature paintings :). I have to shamefully confess that that was also the 1st time in my life I crafted since primary school when it was part of schoolwork.

Tiny pewter tumblers, on an adorable red console (I'll take it IRL!!) :)

I had already decided shortly after the events that I wanted to build a Maharajah's Palace with all the intricate carvings etc. That's why I started the blog, to record my journey to the building of this palace. The very 1st post was about how the idea of building an Indian palace came about - I wanted my palace to be spectacular ! :):) My sister Susie, came up with an artist's impression of what my palace should look like :)

It never crossed my mind to build it myself. I had looked to India for artisans to help me build one.There are really wonderful model makers who can do exactly what I want except they may not be familiar with the building of a dollhouse (layout, opening, assembly details are different from just a model) Here's some examples of their work. I actually went to India to visit Agra's Fatepur Sikri and the Taj in Jan 09 ..yea, I know I am crazy that way :). My sister was going there for work and it was free lodging :).

Plans for the grand palace!

That was before my housemate told me the 4 dollhouses they used in the exhibition would be mine if I wanted them! I recorded that day here :- !  Can you imagine how thrilled I was? Dollhouses are not sold here in Singapore. It was either I build one from scratch or the closest for me to get one was from Indonesia (you can see the one I wanted to get from Indonesia is on the Day 1 post. And I am not even talking about the palace ! Just the run of the mill dollhouses that people in the West take for granted. That halted the plans for my palace for a while because I needed to "convert" these Victorian houses into Indian lodgings PLUS I just got a quote for USD10k from the model maker in India to build me my palace (without looking at plans- they may be quoting a high fee to be on the safe side or maybe they were really NOT interested in building my dollhouse! LOL)

Thanks to being so new to crafting, I did everything else except work on the houses for more than 1 year :). I made a tree, even " built" a temple which was easy because it was from a S$2.00 kit made in China (USD1.25?)  and many many more Indian (mixed with Persian , Mughal etc) artifacts and accessories including hookahs, Indian side tables , pillows etc . I even started stitching Oriental Miniature rugs and I have never sewn in my life-- even during primary school :). Everything except working on the 4 houses because I really could not decide what to do and then how to do it!

After some research , I fell in love with the Bhungha  and havelis and I decided ( I did not know how then) that that is exactly what I would convert the 4 Victorian houses into . And the era must be during the times of the Maharajah. I picked British India , late 18th to early 19th century. As you can see, I  always dream big 1st and then worry later :).

To welcome the "guests"...

Finally in April this year, I "bashed" the smallest of the 1st house (attacked by termites :) ) and created the tribal house :). Not a bhunga because try as I might, I could not make the house circular :):)

Little house.

Gorgeous "antique" door! Read the post to see how she did it.

It is July already, and I have only finished 2 rooms. I hope to finish one more , the artists' workroom this weekend . I was making paint brushes just before I replied to this email :). My artists will paint ganjifa cards :) amongst others.

GB:  Tell us about your inspiration for the maharaja palaces (your trip to Pakistan, India?)

Sans!:  As you know, I have been to India and hope to make a trip there at least once a year. In the meantime, I research almost every item I make . I have loads of books on India, be it craft, ID , Mughal art , palaces or forts and history. I join blogs on Indian culture and decor and at the moment, because I am building a tribal village house that is to be a home for artisans , I am especially interested in the subject matter of handicrafts of India and the traditional method of building anything from charpai to baskets, carpets to jutti.


A spot of tea, anyone?

Treasure chests!!!

Another important factor influencing my direction and motivations are the friends I've made since I started the blog. I am the recipient of much generosity and often have miniaturists just send me their creations specially made for my palace, sometimes out of the blue. It is just an amazing community here. So I started writing stories about these gifts and friends, creating characters from Indian dolls I have and naming these dolls after my friends. I have in my possession almost 200 polyresin Indian dolls :). The tribal house is one I am building for a family of Banjaran gypsies who are very creative with their hands and are entertainers :). Rosanna, the Italian friend will be visiting me in Singapore this coming Monday :):). Yes she is flying down here to spend some time with me and to see Bali and Malaysia :).

These are some of the characters I have created :

Eva, the lady peddlar  after a friend , Eva in Spain

Tallulah, the flower girl after Jayne in US who makes miniature flowers

Rollas- the Banjaran gypsies- , my friends, Rosanna and Walter and Rosanna's dad :). Rosanna is a whiz at embroidery

2 mothers.


GB:  Where do you get all the materials from? Do you make everything or do you modify stuff that exists?

Sans!:  As my subject matter is quite unusual, the objects I need are not widely available in dollhouse shops. I will either have to commission someone (and not very many of them will know how to do them well) to make specific things and I have (Kiva Atkinson for Indian food and Sumaiyah Mehreen for my 1st 4 dolls) or try building it myself. In any event, we also have no specialty toy stores here for dollhouse lovers. I am quite particular and although I find 100% realism boring (I am going to get shot for this remark..lol) I do want my items to be as close to "British India" as possible. So when I was in India, I went to the non tourist-y parts of Delhi to get their fabrics, trimmings and ribbons. I was quite overwhelmed by the beautiful and intricate bead work in a small strip of ribbon. There is no substitute really for these. I use these ribbons to make fabric items like cushions, the Banjaran valance and blanket etc . They are not exact mini replicas :). I am not built that way :) so they are made with liberal artistic licence .

Adorable little stool!

I am very lucky to be staying quite close to Little India in Singapore and I shop there for a lot of my little things. I bought some wonderful mini copper pots there.Whenever I am in Bangkok, I will go to their famous weekend market, JJ where they have a section devoted to excellent handmade miniatures that can be modified to look Indian, eg baskets etc. So yes, I modify a lot of existing stuff to look more Indian or old and distressed. I love it when I can change something so completely that it is unrecognisable from the original form (like Hassan ..lol) Sometimes, I do have to make things from scratch. Like all my hookahs . We have a wonderful bead shop in Singapore, small but comprehensive and for many of my little projects like hookahs, bowls etc, I used these beads. Common household items like buttons and clasp can also be used. I made this hookah from beads and buttons :

"Hookah" made of buttons!

I am always trying to improve on the old model The other thing I am going to keep making is the charpai. I hope to weave one properly . That goes for the stool too. I used oriental fans alot to make carved wooden boxes . The other great store is of course our $2 Japanese Store Daiso.

Casual "baithak"...

"Shoe shelves" made of ice-cream sticks and buttons!

GB: Have you ever held any exhibitions? Your art belongs in museums! If you do, do you have any scheduled- and where?

Sans!: You are too kind :):). I hope that one day, after I chalk up 10,000 hours practising my craft, I will have the opportunity to :).

GB: I love the stories you build around your characters..which comes first, the story or the setting?

Sans!: You have read what I said about me creating the characters so I won't repeat that part but it is almost always the setting 1st. Often my stories happen only when I start writing the post :) . My 1st story was Mahendran and the Roses of Misgivings - . It's really a silly story and completely disconnected like a lame limerick. But I took a lot of pictures arranging the flowers with this and that prop and the story just evolved when I starting to post about the flowers. Later on. I started mixing history with my story like The Indian History of Shoe Throwing . Another really silly tale.  I think it is only funny to me and the people who gave me those presents :). But I always like my characters to be strong, independent , clever and resourceful . The women especially are usually portrayed as very creative and smart business woman. Did you read the article on NY Times (Linked via.) ? Exactly like the lady in this article :). If you don't read anything else, you must read this amazing story. I love love love it!

You must visit her over at her blog. Drop in, say hi, linger and be sure to bookmark it...because there are waaayy too many pictures and stories, rich in details, research, and inspiration, for me to cover in one post!! I know the question that is now foremost in your minds is..."if that's her dollhouse...what's her home like??". Good question. Come back tomorrow to find out.......... ;)


  1. If you can see me now, Gagan , you will see a tomato for a face! I am all red reading this lovely article !!!! If you are sitting across from me, you will probably feel the heat from the red face! :):)

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this write up. It is very sweet of you :). I can imagine all the work, poring through my long long posts and so many of them too :). Selecting pictures. I swear they look much better here.LOL

    I will just like to clarify that the very beautiful screens and pillows above the caption that says "To welcome the guests" are made by my friend Dale :). She flew to Singapore from the US and stayed at my home last month :). We met through my blog :).

    The plate of Turkish Delights above the one that says " A spot of tea, anyone ?" is an example of the generosity of my "mini" friends. She is a very talented "miniaturist" (dollhouse sense) from Singapore. Her name is Cindy :).

    Thank you, a heartfelt one :). I am completely overwhelmed.

  2. This is so truly goregous! I am speechless.

  3. What a beautiful post, beautiful interiors. I love the mirror in the second photo in particular.

  4. @sans!: It's all your work! Thank you for the inspiration, I just had to share this treasure with all my friends! :)

    @Bhavana, Anu, An open book and Indie.Tea: I loved it all. had such a hard time paring down the pictures to just a handful. You must go check out her blog. :)

  5. @Sans!! What an inspiration!!...stunning!!
    @Gagan~ Gr8 job :)

  6. How wonderful! And adorable <3

  7. @sanghamitra. Thanks!! :) She's from singapore too....you should meet-up with her sometime. :)

    @Laura, thanks for stopping by... Isn't her work amazing?!!

  8. thanks for showcasing some really great work here, and a lovely write up! and, I'll be happy if you accept a small appreciation from me Gagan. http://amritaghosh.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/pink/

  9. What a talented lady! Lovely post!

  10. there is so much loveliness in this post! great interview.

    xo Alison

  11. May I borrow your space , Gagan? Just to thank all these wonderful people who have said such nice things ! I have improved only because people have been so kind and generous with their compliments!

    @sanghamitra *waves :):). Hi , hi :). Nice to have met you through Gagan. . I have met my Singapore miniaturist friends through Sumaiya, also living in the States now.LOL! Guess Singapore is not that small on blogland :)

    @Gagan, thank you (1000x)

  12. @Sans! anytime. :)

    @Amrita, Priya and Alison...Thanks! I think her work is amazing too... :)

  13. Thanks for introducing an amazingly talented artist! My God the patience and creativity this lady Sans has! @Sans, kudos to you and you are truly an inspiration. You have created such intricate and small items that so look so real, especially without having access to all the store bought easy stuff like in the West. I am off to check out your blog, you are in my favs now!

  14. @rkramadh: She truly is one gifted lady! You're going to love her blog!

  15. Sorry, GB, stealing this again to say hi to rkramadh: come say hi ok? I will love to make your acquaintance :).

  16. Hi I am Tallulah - the flower girl.

    Thanks so much for this post on Susan and her wonderful work. She really deserves to be showcased like this. And yes...I think she should be in museums too.

    I too am in love with all things India and will be decorating my guest room in that style so will be following your blog to for inspiration.

  17. Amazing! i cannot tell how amazing. i have a 7 month old daughter who is recovering from a bad cold and cough. she has taken medication and is finally asleep after hours of crying. i must be resting now. but i am not able to take my eyes off this work. that's how much amazing this is. humbling. wow.


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