(An edited version of the article, ‘ Wooden Toy Makers of Varanasi’ was published in the Rail Bandhu magazine!
There is magic in their hands and dedication in their actions. There is solace on their faces and integrity in their demeanour. There is the perspective of art and anticipation of possibilities. My afternoon walk along the narrow streets of Khojwa in the city of Varanasi turned out to be a revelation of sorts. I was delighted to see an ensemble of wooden toys-birds, animals, orchestras, soldiers, idols of Ganesha and Hanuman in every little workshop that I crossed by. Each one of them was a gem and spoke volumes about the artistic legacy of Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world.
Interestingly, I had never been enamoured so much with a piece of wood but there was something very special about the cultural theme of these toys. Since Varanasi is a pilgrimage centre, the toys mostly represent deities from Hindu mythology. The wood that had been chiselled to perfection into numerous different objects told unique mythological and religious stories of the city and its people. The tiny wooden gods and goddesses were carved and painted in amazing detail, thanks to the traditional know-hows. More so, the finish, the colours and the final products were unrivalled. Each piece was a labour of love and reflected cultural diversity and skills of the craftsmen. In the times when we are looking for ways to recycle plastic, these toys are biodegradable.
Wooden Toy Makers of Khojwa
This colony of craftsmen has been practising wood carving generation after generation, told my guide. Despite my past visits, I found this piece of information very unique to Varanasi. I had only associated the ‘city of salvation’ with Banarasi sarees, Zardoji work and Gulabi meenakari. Little did I know that wooden toy-making was one of the oldest crafts of the city and had survived despite the changing and challenging times. I was immediately taken over an urge to hear their stories.
I visited some of the artisans’ workshops and interacted with them and returned home much informed. All along, I had picked up a lot of trivia around the world famous art of wooden toy making.
There goes an old legacy!
Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world and is known as the cultural capital of India. For times immemorial, the ghats of Banaras have been considered pious for all religious celebrations. People from different cultures, communities, religions and traditions came and settled here. As the settlements thrived by the banks of river Ganges, a variety of art, craft and music became an intangible cultural heritage of the city and it became the home of many artificers and craftsmen.
Originally, the toy-makers did not excel in wood carving. It was ivory carving that gave way to wood carving and it happened only after use of ivory was banned by the government. From the procurement of wood to hand-carving and lacquering, it is traditionally a man’s job. Some of the artisans involve the women of their family in the colouring and the decorating part. The artists prefer to play their own parts. There is a set of artists who are only skilled to make the toys of wood and finish the structure. There are separate families of artists whose sole job is to paint the toys, I was told by my guide.
Wooden Toy Makers of Varanasi
The Art of Toy-Making
While walking through the lanes, I met people of different age groups who practised this craft professionally. The youngest boy was aged fifteen and I was fascinated with his beautiful carving. He was making fine strokes of the hammer on the chisel and giving shape to an idol of Ganesh. Next, I watched him chip off the extra wood. When he was done with his work, he offered to show me his other works too. He had learnt the art from his father and grandfather. Together, they made around 30 toys in a day. He was thrilled to talk about his work and later he also took me through the procedure of the toy making.
The most important aspect of this craft is selecting the right kind of wood for toys. Care is to be taken to dry out all the moisture from the wood before it is worked on. The process of slow heating helps to draw out all moisture. Sal and Seesham are the preferred wood but these days gular wood is the most used one. The tiny birds and animals are carved by slicing profiles from one single wooden piece. The smallest seemed to be half an inch and the largest was four inches put together with nails and glues. There are three most important phases of the toy making-carving, painting and lacquering.
To make a design, the artist cuts, peels and shapes the wood with the help of knives and other equipment. Carving is followed by painting. It is taken up by another set of artisans. The process entails two coats of bright colours and use of delicate brushes having fine hair. The final coat is of lacquer to bring shine to the surface of the toys. A colourful toy or the final product is sold at a much higher rate than the carved toy. These wooden toys are world famous but the artisans who actually hand-carve them do not even know in which cities and countries their products are sold.
Challenges of the Artists
Interacting with the families of those who have been doing it for generations revealed many aspects of their work, everyday living, monetary constraints and their fears of continuing the art. The whole experience made me appreciate the beauty of hand-made wooden toys in a better way.
As I unravelled more, I realised that we can’t overlook seeing things as they really are. In the times when money holds all importance, an artist earns mere Rs.10 when he spends nearly one hour to make one wooden toy. Usually, all the men of the family are involved in making the toys. On the days when they all work for the whole day at a stretch, the best they can do is 20-30 toys together which hardly translates into three hundred rupees a day. On some of the days, it is not even enough to pay for their meals.
Despite the fascinating artwork, the craftsmen are forced to take up a hand to mouth living in most of the months except fairs and festivals. Some of the families have already left this ancestral art and chosen another livelihood. The erratic power supply, expensive raw materials and the rising cost of wood, lack of financial help are some of the challenges that they often face. When woodcarving accounts for one of Varanasi’s specialities, I am left wondering as to why good enough efforts are not being made to revive this small scale industry.
Next time when you are there, you must not forget to bring a little bit of Khojwa with you. My favourite was toy soldiers playing musical instruments and I felt ecstatic after buying some of these beautiful bunches for my house.