The new-age gadgets and technological advancements have altered our love for age-old practices and products of exquisite craftsmanship. The influx of foreign far-fetched devices has literally taken over the demand of traditional handicrafts and hand-made artifacts. And of all the odds, competition from outsourced products which come at cheap prices has killed the passion and profession for many. But, despite of all odds, there are some traditions that have stood by troubles and struggles, trying to outrun the test of time. The art of making wooden (lacquerware) toys in Channapatna is one such tale of dwindling art and artisans, which I accidentally came across while I was on my way to Mysore from Bangalore.
One my way to Mysore from Bangalore
My artistic encounter started when my eyes were met by a huge, green-colored, overhead signboard which read ‘Land of toys’. This immediately put me in action and I turned towards my Bangalorean friend. I am glad he was ready to take all my questions. He parked the car right away to fill me with the initials details about the place.
He beamed with pride and declared, ‘This is Channapatna. It houses some of the most colorful shops where you wish to be a child again and everything is about toys. The town is world famous for its eco-friendly toys. It boasts of dozens of wooden toys of all shapes and sizes. These toys have traced a long path and have even reached the White house in United States of America. If you are interested, let us a quick tour to some of these shops.’ With no second thoughts, I jumped in at his offer.
Right at the outset, I was welcomed by huge bunch of rocking horses and bullock carts. The color cuteness and ideatation was too hard to ignore. If this was a teaser alert, a whole world of toys was awaiting me inside. I was stunned with the incredible range available inside the shop. This place in itself was a toy-land where dreams had taken the form of playful things. What really surprised me was that the artisans had used wood to carve out almost everything on Earth. From lovely dolls to figurines, stacker toys to rattles, mathematical games to puzzles, rocking horses to rabbits, cheetah, vehicles to trains engines, motorcycles, here every little toy had the prowess to cast a spell on you. I was floored by the immense creativity around me.
These wooden toys have a beautiful connect from Persia. For his love for wooden toys and Persian way of hand-crafting, famous warrior Tipu Sultan invited artists from Persia and put the Indian local artists under their training. It was then that the seeds of this art was sown. The charm of the art as well as the alluring toys comes from the fact that the traditional techniques is still followed by the local artisans who majorly hail from the same village called Neelasandra. The town remains to be one of the largest producer of this authentic and exquisite art.
Taking up conversations with locals always help. After having visited three different shops and being impressed by the variety, class, design, creativity and vibrant colors of these toys, I decided to talk to the owner of the fourth shop. By this time, I had already bought some rattles, puzzle games and figurines for my niece but I was not leaving the place without learning about the artistry and the process behind the creation of these eco-friendly toys. I had already discovered that the main reason that these toys were considered best for kids was that even if a child put them in the mouth accidentally, they were non-harmful. No chemicals but only natural dyes are used in the making of these cute, little things of play. The figurines are well rounded and curvaceous with no sharp edges to worry about.
The shopkeeper, a skilled artisan himself was a young lad who was handling the shop after his father and grand-father. He told me that wood and vegetable dyes were two main raw materials used for the making. Simple carving tools like hand lathe and skilled hands were enough to carve magic on the Doodhi Wood (or Milk wood) or Ivory Wood. Once the toys were made from this soft wood, high abrasive property grass is used for polishing and glazing.
Not just kids, these shops can fascinate the grown-ups too. I was not just excited about the toys but my interest was also perked up by the availability of jewelry boxes, bangles, keychains, rollers, pencil stands and many other decorative items. To keep the business sustainable, modern machines were being used to make these. Countries and people who are learning about the use of natural dyes are the potential markets for these toys and other items.
The owner also informed me that stiff competition with Chinese products had the hit the industry strongly and a lot of small shops had closed down in the last decade. There was a time when a local artisan could carve 10-12 toys in a day and still couldn’t fulfill the demand from International countries. But now, there is not much sale. The local artisans and shopkeepers along with the government are trying to save the art by all means. The need of the hour is to popularize these beautiful, eco-friendly toys and gift them to our children.
Some significant things that you must know about the toys and the toy land.
• Channapatna is protected as a geographical indication (GI) under the World Trade Organization. This means that the toys made here possess qualities of the region, live to a reputation and assure authenticity. They must not be produced anywhere else.
• This craft of toy making was never a part of large scale industry. There were no factories which produced them. This was always the product of passion and skill of the local artisans who did this in their sweet little homes and passed on the legacy. To support the revival, this profession is being supported as small scale industry. Yet the count of artisans has been dwindling.
• Over a decade, the demand for these toys has decreased considerably and this is a matter of major concern. This market of toys was badly hit by the over availability of low priced Chinese toys so much so that a lot shopkeepers had to shut their old shops. Despite of efforts made by the government, creation of network of artisans, setting up of machineries, fueling up of small scale industries, providing marketing assistance with the help of Karnataka Handicrafts Development Corporation (KHDC), the industry still needs a major boost up.
• The Channapatna town is in the Ramanagara District in Karnataka. The town Ramanagara enjoys a different kind of adulation because this is where the path-breaking Hindi movie, Sholay, was shot.
• Bavas Miyan is known as the Father of Channapatana toy making for his commitment and his efforts towards improving the art as well as the life of artisans.
• To preserve the skills of nearly 3000 local artisans, to better the employment opportunities and to safeguard the heritage, Channapatna got India’s first Crafts Park.
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