The Channapatna toymakers traditionally use soft wood from the hale tree Image Credit: Supplied

Nearly 60 kilometres on the scenic highway from Bengaluru to Mysore in Karnataka, a southern Indian state, the familiar little shops selling knick-knacks and plasticware, and restaurants serving snacks and meals, give way to an exuberance of colour and playfulness. Wooden toys of all shapes and sizes, chiefly in the traditional primary colours, spill out of stores and on to the roadside.

Magnificent wooden rocking horses, cars, beautifully painted nesting dolls, and old-style walkers are among a host of aesthetically designed products that tell you that you are entering Gombegala Ooru, or Toy Town, a picturesque village in Channapatna where every household is in some way associated with toymaking.

Long before Western-inspired dolls and toys entered the Indian households, it was Channapatna’s traditional handcrafted wooden lacquerware toys that generations of children in the region played with. Crafted using the age-old tradition of lac-turnery, these were also in demand in Europe, especially in the 1970s.

Entering the dusty, narrow bylanes off the main road, we dodge goats and cattle and walk past small brick houses and repair shops until we reach rows of tiny workshops covered with tin roofs. Inside are heaps of wood shavings and sawdust covering the entire floor. Wooden pieces of varying sizes are also stacked high while the distinct whir of the lathe machines used to cut wood reverberates in the air.

Standing ankle-deep amid of flaky wood chips is Noor Mohammad, a newly married 30-year-old who first learnt the skills of the trade under a master craftsman more than 12 years ago. Six lathe machines are in operation in this tiny space. “There are more than a thousand such working units operating in Channapatna today. The craft requires tremendous skill and precision and is a highly labour-intensive process,” says Mohammad.

The numbers are a far cry from the heyday of this craft, when these sustainably produced, handmade and high quality toys — with their lustrous shine and rounded edges — were quite sought after both in India and abroad. Estimated to be more than 200 years old, the toymaking tradition in Channapatna is said to have originated in the 18th century when Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, was gifted a lacquered wooden toy made in Persia. Enamoured by its craftsmanship, he asked the artisans from Persia to teach the craft to his subjects. The trained artisans settled in the town of Channapatna, around 65 kilometres from Srirangapatna, Tipu Sultan’s capital, and thus began the town’s association with toys.

Wood is the most basic raw material used in making Channapatna toys, says Mohammad. “We use the soft, white wood of the hale tree (Wrightia tinctoria) found in abundance in this region. This is light-weight but moderately hard and easy to work with.”

Once the raw material is procured, it is seasoned for a couple of months to remove moisture and then cut into different sizes based on the requirement. “We use mechanised lathes to shape the wood into spheres, circles or ovals. Various types of chisels help in perfecting the process, after which it is rubbed with sandpaper to soften the surface,” says Mohammad.

The lacquering art that Channapatna is known for comes from its mix of vegetable dye and food grade pigments, he says. “The dyes are added to hot lacquer to blend the colours uniformly and then dried into sticks.”

These coloured lacquer sticks melt when exposed to heat. As the wood is shaped into the desired form on the lathe, friction causes heat and the lacquer stick pressed against it adheres to the wooden surface, giving it a glossy sheen. To finish the process, it is buffed with screwpine leaves to smoothen out the colour and give a translucent finish.

Apart from the traditional toys, Mohammad’s unit also makes decorative and household utility articles. “Our main clientele is the local market,” he says. “However, a couple of non-profit organisations and design studios that have set up base here outsource some of their work to us, which has greatly boosted our meagre earnings. Supplying to them — particularly Maya Organic, which has been present in Channapatna for more than a decade — has not only given us a new market but also instilled in us the value of using only natural colours and maintaining consistent quality.”

A major setback for the Channapatna craftsmen, says Shaheda Shahida, project manager at Maya Organic, an NGO with 65 employees of whom more than 65 per cent are women, has been the booming market for imitation Chinese products. “These are cheap and are passed off as ‘made in Channapatna’ to the tourists looking for a bargain. To keep costs low, many artisans also use Chinese beads in their products, which goes against the very ethos of the toymaking industry here.”

Maya Organic, says Shahida, addresses the twin issues of livelihood and education with the aim of creating an empowered and equitable society. “To tackle the livelihood issue, we began to offer skilled training to the artists, particularly women, although this was a male-dominated craft. The waning demand also prompted us to look into the export market and today, Japan is our top consumer, followed by Germany, Switzerland and Australia.”

For many years, the Channapatna toy industry was characterised by a lack of out-of-the-box thinking. “The craftsmen were churning out the same old designs, and this absence of innovation was another cause for the poor demand,” she says. Maya Organic offered marketing and design support to the artisans to inject contemporary ideas in design and products categories, and make them competent enough to respond to new and varied challenges of the market.

The current product range available at Maya Organic includes toys such as rattles, stackers, push and pull toys, tops, skill puzzles, board and strategy games; educational aids to improve visual and spatial intelligence, mathematical and motor skills; and a host of wooden knick-knacks including crib danglers, wall pegs, candle stands and flower vases, all crafted using traditional lacquerware handicraft techniques.

“Unlike the Chinese toys and products that use toxic paints, sustainability is at the core of Channapatna toys,” says Shahida. “The beauty of the Channapatna toys lies in the fact that they use natural dyes and therefore pose no health hazards either to the maker or the user.”

“Our products are a benchmark for quality and safety,” she adds. “The lacquer we use is a safe, natural, non-toxic resin secreted by microscopic insects while the colours are from the turmeric plant (yellow), the locally grown manjista (Rubia cordifolia) and vermilion powder (red and orange), and extracts of indigo plant. Green is obtained by mixing indigo and turmeric.”

Any other colour is a synthetic mix, she says. “It is now common to see Channapatna products in pink, purple and a variety of other colours. These lack the gloss and sheen the traditional toys are known for and could even be harmful.”

The lacquerware craft in Channapatna also keeps wastage to a minimum, she says. “Even the residual wood chips are used as raw material by the incense stick industry.”

As many of the toys require the use of beads less than 25mm in diameter, a size that cannot be produced on the lathe, these are outsourced from the nearby village of Neelasandra where artisans from about 120 families still work on the traditional hand lathe.

Redefining the way Channapatna products have been used so far is Karthik Vaidyanathan, who has deviated from the idea of looking at it as a toymaking craft. “When I looked at it as just a craft, I began to see something more in it,” says Vaidyanathan whose visit to the Toy Town four years ago inspired him to design and develop his own line under the label Varnam (meaning ‘colours’).

Exploring the versatility and discovering the true potential of the Channapatna lacquerware craft, Varnam created a stir in the market by giving tradition a contemporary twist with its series of original designs in home accents and lighting, toys and jewellery.

Varnam, says Vaidyanathan, is a social enterprise that seeks to promote the craft by making it relevant to the modern context and lifestyle. “Livelihoods are at stake in the Indian crafts sector; so it is time to take it to the next level. By bringing my own aesthetic sensibilities and design philosophy to the table, the idea is to create a functional value for the product to widen its appeal.”

Originality is what defines the Varnam range of products and the reason why it has won many awards for design excellence. Although not a student or practitioner of design, Vaidyanathan has always been an ardent lover of crafts and design. Yet he admits it was not easy to persuade the craftsmen at Channapatna to accept his ideas. “But when my first design of small lamps turned out to be a major success, the artists relented and have since supported me wholeheartedly.”

Almost singlehandedly, this media professional with engineering and MBA degrees, has given the 200-year-old craft form a complete makeover with his collection of floor lamps, napkin holders, salt-and-pepper shakers, door knobs, wall hangers, and a host of other home décor and lifestyle accessories with animal motifs that add a whimsical touch to any modern urban home.

What irks Vaidyanathan is when people say these products should be cheap. “Why should they be?” he says. “Government subsidies have killed many a craft in India. The need of the hour is to give greater visibility to the craft. People should buy it because it is local and handmade. The government should encourage designers to support the crafts sector by reinterpreting it to keep it contemporary so that it has a greater impact on the artists at the grassroots level. It is my hope that with the work I do, the sense of pride among the craftsmen in their skill is elevated and they remain motivated to ensure that these crafts continue to thrive.”

Sangeetha Swaroop is a writer based in Dubai.