for ISKCON News on Sept. 8, 2012
Full-time mom Nandini Zaldivar has put her creativity to use in transforming Barbie—the ultimate material girl—into a devoted Gopi doll that’s the perfect role model for ISKCON children.
A second generation ISKCON devotee, Nandini grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in various ISKCON communities in the USA, including Gita Nagari and Alachua, Florida.
“I had lots of Barbie dolls growing up, and my mother would sew all sorts of clothes for them, dressing them up in saris and other Vaishnava outfits,” she says. “She also taught me how to sew early on.”
Today, Nandini lives in the New Govardhana farm community in New South Wales, Australia, and has two little girls of her own—Sati-Sundari, 8, and Sitali-Radha, 6.
Back in 2006, when the family lived in New Gokula, another farm in Australia, a devotee gave Sati a Barbie doll dressed in “maha”—old discarded clothes from the Deities of Sri Sri Radha Gokulananda.
The old clothes fell apart, but Nandini thought, “I can do this,” and made her first Gopi doll by sewing a sari for the Barbie out of Deity castaways.
When Nandini’s second daughter, Sitali, was born and grew old enough, she wanted a Gopi doll too.
Nandini and her daughers Sati Sundari (left) and Sitali-Radha
“I wanted to encourage them in their Radha and Krishna games, just like my mother encouraged me in mine,” says Nandini. “And it worked. They would dress themselves up as gopis—the village cowherd girls that are known as the greatest devotees of Krishna—and play Radha and Krishna games with their gopi dolls all day.”
The dolls also gave the girls good role models. “My mother was always very big on chastity when I was growing up,” Nandini says. “I wanted my girls to see the chaste way the gopi dolls were dressed as the ideal of beautiful, rather than the way Barbie dresses.”
Soon, Sati and Sitali’s friends began to ask for dolls too, and Nandini began to take custom orders and sell them at the little shop she owned at the New Gokula temple.
Upon moving to New Govardhana, a busier community, more and more devotees began to ask her about the dolls. Nandini would bring a batch of them to a child’s birthday party, and they would sell out.
Today, she sells them through her Sundari Gopi Dolls Facebook page, where customers around the world can chose the doll they like, pay for it using Paypal, and receive it in the mail. She also sells them at the New Govardhana temple shop.
Nandini makes her dolls in “collections”—series of around twenty dolls dressed in outfits of different styles made from the same cloth. There are also collections of a particular race—there are Caucasian, African, Hispanic, and Asian gopis.
Nandini uses strong, durable fabrics that hold up through children's games
Nandini works at home, in her two-car garage which she has transformed into her art studio. First off, she purchases Barbie dolls at the store, and removes the accessories and clothes they come with.
Next, she picks whatever material, color, trim, and skirt-style inspires her at the time to make the miniature saris or gopi skirts, dupatta veils, and choli blouses.
“When I started off, I used all maha cloth,” Nandini says. “Now that the operation is bigger, I order saris from Vrindavana, the village in India where Krishna was born. The cloth I use is a brand new, synthetic fabric that’s stronger and more durable than silk or cotton. Kids tend to throw the dolls around—you have to use strong stuff!”
Practical playability is also important to children, and so the dolls’ clothes are also designed to be easy to put on and take off, so that they can try on different outfits.
Nandini started off sewing everything by hand herself—each elaborate outfit took about a week to make. Today, she uses a sewing machine, but Sundari Gopi Dolls is still a one-woman operation, and she can still only make one outfit a day.
Once the outfit has been made, Nandini adds matching jewelry, which she also makes herself.
“I pierce the dolls’ rubber ears and noses, and give them earrings and noserings,” she says, giggling with delight, clearly loving her work. “I give them sacred neck beads. And finally, I paint little gopi dots and the vaishnava tilak marking on their faces. Neck beads and tilak in particular really make them look so much better.”
The last step is naming the dolls.
“Often a doll will look like a friend of mine, and I’ll name her after them,” Nandini says. “One had dark hair and skin and looked like my sister-in-law Yamuna; another had blonde hair and blue eyes and looked just like my friend Revati.” Other dolls are named after Nandini’s nieces Vana and Chandramukhi.
Nandini’s latest Sundari Gopi Dolls collection, for August-September, is her biggest yet, comprising of fifty different dolls. The collection is expected to debut the first Ken doll, transformed into Sri Shyamasundar, or Krishna Himself.
“He will be painted like a Deity, black with elaborate gopi dots and everything,” says Nandini, who will be using her experience painting home Deities for the New Govardhana community.
With Krishna making His debut, Radharani will also join Him, making a Divine Couple set.
Continuing in the vein of creating specific characters, Nandini also plans to use the current collection to introduce the eight principal gopi servants of Radha and Krishna—Lalita, Visakha, Sudevi, Chitra, Tungavidya, Champakalata, Rangadevi, and Indulekha.
To identify them, she’ll create outfits based on details given in Vaishnava scriptures. One gopi, for instance, is described as wearing a peacock-feather skirt; while another is described as having stars upon her clothes.
While Nandini tries to make her dolls affordable, they don’t go for pocket change. As she has to buy Barbies for around $30 each, purchase cloth, and put lots of time and creativity into making outfits and jewelry, the dolls range from $40 to $80. The August-September collection, however, will see the introduction of a premium doll for $108.
“She’ll have everything—a more elaborate, fuller skirt and dupatta, fancier choli, more bangles, bigger earrings, more necklaces, a belt, a full tika headpiece, a fancy nosering with a chain, and extra elaborate gopi dots,” says Nandini. “I may even decorate her hands with Mehndi.”
Nandini created a Sundari Gopi Doll cake for her daughter Sitali's birthday, in the form of the Gopi Tungavidya
In the future, Nandini hopes to purchase the dolls at a better wholesale price and enlist the help of other artists and seamstresses so that she can produce enough to meet the rising demand. Next year will also see the appearance of a website, gopidolls.com, which will tell the stories of the gopis and feature images of the dolls in various devotional Vrindavana scenes.
“So far, we’ve been getting great feedback from children and parents,” Nandini says. “Parents tell us that their kids carry the dolls all over the place, and even take them to sleep at night.” To see and purchase Nandini’s latest collection of Sundari Gopi Dolls, please visit