A child with toys made in Channapatna, Karnataka Photo: Nilotpal Baruah
The village of Neelasandra near Channapatna town, about 60 km from Bangalore, has a cluster of closely built houses. Every house has a porch. Under the porch women of the household sit on the floor and use a hand lathe to chisel wood from the Aale Mara tree into shape to make toy components.
They colour the parts with lac, a natural resin, and polish them to a glossy finish. The components are then bought and assembled by toymakers. The women earn up to Rs 500 a day compared with Rs 70 eight years ago.
Behind their rising income is a tale of revival. Channapatna is called the Toy Town of Karnataka. It has been making wooden toys - called lacware toys because they use lac - ever since Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, brought in artisans from Persia in the 18th century and thereby introduced the craft in India. For two centuries, the town produced mostly dolls for domestic consumption. The influx of Chinese toys battered its market and the town's products were reduced to being souvenirs people would pick up when they stopped by on the way to Mysore.
However, the town's fortunes are now turning around thanks to niche toymakers focused on lacware, e-commerce websites and designers who want to make these toys contemporary and popular again. The state government has also played its part, with the Karnataka Handicrafts Development Corporation providing marketing support to Channapatna artisans, who number around 2,000.
Women artisans at Maya Organic's factory in Channapatna
Artisans are now being trained on modern machines. They produce everything from simple push, pull and stacker toys to rattles and puzzles. The humble doll now sits in a Formula-One like racing car, wooden butterflies flap their wings while ducks waddle and paddle. All these have found an international market with growing awareness about natural dyes. Turmeric is used for the colour yellow, indigo powder for blue, and Kanchi kumkum powder for orange and red.
Maya Organic, a not-for-profit organisation, employs 60 artisans in Channapatna and sources components from 40 others - a toy has at least 10 components. The company started exporting toys in 2004. It now sells about 80 per cent of its toys outside India - in Japan, Europe, the United States, South Africa and parts of Asia. Subba Rao, Sales Manager at Maya Organic, says the market for Channapatna toys has expanded in value terms and prices have risen 20 per cent in the past five years. The toys cost between Rs 30 and Rs 1,425.
The past few years have also seen the emergence of e-commerce websites that are making the toys more easily available. One such is Craftsvilla.com, a marketplace for Indian products. There are 10 sellers of Channapatna toys here.
Besides toys, Channapatna has also started making a range of other products thanks to designers who are giving the craft a different edge and exposure. Atul Johri, a designer, moved from Bangalore to live in the town in 2007 and has designed lights, tableware, vases and candles using lacware techniques traditionally applied to toy making. He has also created a series of bathroom accessories such as towel racks and paper holders as well as kitchen accessories like jars. "We need to keep the traditional practice alive but give it a fresh appeal," says Johri. "India has changed. You cannot sell what you did 40 years ago. It has to have utility."
Nishi Chauhan, another designer, has created six lamps collectively called Animal Farm - Peeves, Porky, Gerry, Flo, Humf and Ellie are a fine blend of lamps within a bottle along with colourful Channapatna elements. "Designers have brought in diversification," Chauhan says. "The craft has found application in furniture, lamps and home décor. The traditional techniques can be applied to many things."
There is a thrust to stimulate domestic consumption as well. Between October 30 and November 9, the Bengaluru International Airport ran a food festival wherein passengers got a Channapatna toy free if their bill was more than Rs 300. Pamphlets that highlighted the old craft of Channapatna toys were distributed across the airport.
It could be a matter of time before many Indian parents switch to Made-in-Channapatna toys from the Chinese products they now buy for their children.Goutam Das