It’s not unusual for a mother to buy dolls for her child — but when Cindy Bachan of Valley Stream purchased four Ish Dolls, they weren’t for her 8-year-old or even her 15-year-old.
She gave them to her 23-year-old daughter Abigail.
Abigail, raised Christian, recently married a Hindu man, and the Ish Dolls are plush characters representing Hindu deities. "They were perfect to give her a crash course," says Cindy, 49, a financial controller, who was raised in the Hindu religion herself but hadn’t previously exposed Abigail to it in depth.
The dolls are the creation of Dix Hills mom Amanda Ealla, 34, who left her corporate finance job during the pandemic to focus on her two young sons. While home, she wanted to create dolls that her sons could relate to that would bring the culture alive for them.
"I guess you could say Ish Dolls was my pandemic pivot," Ealla says. "While the world as I knew it was changing so rapidly for my family and I, the pandemic pushed me into launching my own successful venture that was near and dear to my heart."
'IMMEDIATELY SOLD OUT'
Ealla is from the island of Trinidad and Tobago, which she says has a large Hindu population. "A lot of people came over as indentured servants. We brought over our culture from India to Trinidad." Ealla says she would have loved to have dolls she could identify with when she was growing up in Brooklyn.
So, during 2020, she first sewed prototypes herself, and then found a manufacturer in India to produce them for her. "I knew nothing about the toy world," she says; her research was mostly online and trial and error. Her sons, Jake, 8, and Jax, 2, were her first product testers. "It was a big hit with them. I knew it could do well with other families wanting to get their kids interested in the religion and culture."
At first, she ordered just 50 Baby Krishna dolls and sold each 10-inch doll for $30 at ishdolls.com. "It did so well. We immediately sold out," Ealla says. "Even people who weren’t of the Hindu background, a lot of my friends thought it would be a great way to introduce diversity into their playrooms."
Katiuscia Gray, a therapist of Caribbean descent in private practice in Lynbrook, applauds Ealla's undertaking. "I think representation matters. The industry of dolls has been saturated with non-people of color."
STORYTELLING AND MEANING
Ealla has since expanded to eight different dolls, most of which sell for $32. Baby Krishna has been joined by Baby Shiva, Baby Lakshmi, Rama and Sita (sold together in a $75 collector’s box), Durga and Saraswati. "I try to choose figures that can teach kids lessons," Ealla says. For instance, being calm is Shiva’s superpower and Saraswati embodies knowledge and music, she says.
Ish Dolls — Ish is derived from the Sanskrit word "ishta-devata," which means cherished deity — has sold 7,000 dolls so far, and Ealla is planning to add at least six more Hindu dolls and even expand to dolls from other cultures, she says.
Jennifer Choudhury, 34, an insurance marketing manager from Levittown, is friends with Ealla and says she watched her progressions. "I’ve seen her product really evolve from idea to being sold," Choudhury says. "When she initially told me about this idea, I thought it was really smart."
Choudhury purchased three of the dolls as a gift for her 4-year-old niece. "Children are very attracted to it because it’s a plush doll. But there’s storytelling and meaning behind it."
Roshni Seelall, 35, an account manager from Richmond Hill, Queens, bought the dolls for daughters, Roma, 8, and Zara, 7. "It's a really awesome concept," she says, adding that she hasn't been able to find other cultural toys for her daughter. "We actually bought the entire collection."
LI KIDS CREATE GAMES
A group of Indian-American Long Island students has created a card game called Ganga River Rescue that uses the famed river in India to teach kids about the environment as well as link them to their heritage.
“You’re trying to save the ecosystem,” says Rathi Raja of Manhasset, who runs the not-for-profit “Games for Seva,” whose members developed the game for all children grades 8 and older. Bad events occur during play — either caused by humans or nature — and players have to respond. “It’s a fun game to play with a lot of camaraderie and competition.”
Games for Seva — Seva translates to “giving back,” Raja says — is a leadership component of the New Hyde Park-based, not-for-profit Young Indian Culture Group. The group launched a Kickstarter campaign on June 27 that has a goal of raising $5,000 to bring the game to market; in its first three days, it raised more than $4,000.
Asvin Ranganathan, 17, of Syosset, was one of the first testers of the game prototype. “We spent all day playing it, seeing potential problems, loopholes, places where the rules don’t work correctly,” he says. Then they told the team of creators so they could adjust.
“It’s really unique,” Ranganathan says. “It incorporates strategy, a little bit of luck, and it’s fun.”
Having such a game helps break down walls between cultures, says Pranati Patnam, 17, of New Hyde Park, who was also one of the game testers. “A lot of teenagers of South Asian descent are pretty shy about showing their culture to other people,” she says. But a game allows them to play with friends.
Games for Seva has also produced other card games, including, for instance, a matching game called Memory Maya that introduces children to Sanskrit vocabulary. It sells for $14.99 at thegamecrafter.com.
“Seeing things like this on the market is fabulous,” says Nita Batta, an Indian-American social worker with the Manhattan-based A Good Place Therapy and mother of two children, ages 11 and 8. “Being raised Indian-American, I didn’t have access to them growing up. It brings a positive sense of identity.”
Anuja Gupta, a psychologist in private practice in New Hyde Park, grew up in India ad moved to the United States when she was 26 years old. She agrees that the role of multicultural toys is “huge.”
“The more we embrace them, the more we are sending a message of tolerance and acceptance to our young ones,” she says. “Yes, toys are toys. Yes, toys are fun and toys are something to play with. Toys are also a starting point of how we perceive the world.”