Toys are not mere toys. They provide the livelihood for a majority of people in Channapatna in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district. Channapatna is about 60 km from Bengaluru and the wooden toys made here are sold worldwide.

The toy making tradition, which has a geographical indication tag, dates back to the times of Tipu Sultan. During his reign, Tipu received a wooden craft piece as a gift from Persia and he fall in love with it. He is believed to have invited Persian artisans to train his people in the art of wooden toy making.

Toy making has been the livelihood for most of Channapatna’s people for centuries. It is a small village with narrow, muddy roads, huts and thatched roof workshops. Apart from the numerous toy shops on both sides of the highway that display colorful toys, nothing is colorful about the village, as the villagers struggle to make both ends meet.

Unique craft

Earlier, the craftsmen made toys manually. They collected big tree trunks from neighboring villages and forests. Ivory wood was mainly used for making toys. Its soft nature made carving easy. Its lighter shade helped the toys absorb colors nicely. But continuous logging has made availability of ivory wood difficult. So the toy makers have turned to rubber wood, cedar, pine, teak and rosewood.

The toy makers bring the wood to sawmills, a subsidiary industry here, and cut them into small pieces. They carve the pieces into different shapes, with hand blades and knives. Then they color the pieces with vegetable dyes and lac, a resin extracted from insects.

Channapatna, with around 72,000 people, has a majority Muslim population. Most of the villagers are engaged directly or indirectly in making toys. Many sawmills and 500-odd toy factories show the higher graph of employment and the way the craft adds to the local economy.

“Apart from this, hundreds of small toy making units function like cottage industries. All the family members play a role in the toy-making process,” Yasir, a commission agent, said. “They assemble the toys, paint and dry them, and then package them.” Women make small spinning tops, carts and figurines at home.

Gradually, small machines have been introduced. This has made the creation easier. By mechanising the carving and lacquering, production has become faster. Though the handmade toys have their own beauty, machine-made ones have a perfect finish.

Vassi, who has 30 years of experience, still produces only handmade toys. “We can make 100 small pieces in a day,” he said. “We work as a group of four. One carves the different parts of a toy and the other assembles them. Abbas and Gulab, who were lacquering and polishing toy trains, nodded in agreement. The movement of their fingers showed the craftsmanship they have acquired through years of dedication.

Channapatna's toy factories double up as showrooms. Photo credit: Chithra Ajith

Hard job

Nothing can beat the beauty of the traditional toys. But modernissation and globalisation have negatively affected livelihoods of toy makers, not least the deluge of cheap Chinese toys.

“Daily wages are very low,” Gulab said. “Sometimes we get back pain since we keep sitting continuously for a long time. But this is the only job we know and we are happy making toys.”

Many artisans though have left the profession because they are poorly paid and they see middlemen, traders and exporters make the profits while they struggle to survive. Many artisans are thus hesitant to bring their children into the business.

Although the government have announced many facilities for the development of artisans, they are inadequate. The Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation has set up a lacquer ware craft complex in Channapatna. It functions as an industrial school and an on-the-job training center. The limited facilities do not address the actual grievances of toy makers. The lathes installed there do not cater to every artisan. The subsidy the producers get from authorities is also meager.

Demonetisation and GST have hurt the business as well. “New policies badly affected our sales,” a shop owner said. “Some export orders got cancelled.”

Some of the toys produced in Channapatna.

Adding colour

Many NGOs and design studios work with the artisans these days. They assure fair wages and markets for the artisans’ products. Design studios inform the toy makers about modern trends and demands. They teach artisans to move beyond toys and to make trays, key chains, bead curtains, pen stands, curios, etc to face market competition. Designers train the workers to produce new designs according to the demand.

Maya Organic is a livelihood development initiative involved in developing a network of artisans, workers and micro entrepreneurs capable of producing world-class lacquer ware. This NGO has around 15 units. Women form 70% of its workforce. They help women develop skills and get them to work under one roof with better work environment and wages.

“We are trying to help Channapatna regain its glory, by uniting artisans and familiarising them with modern equipment and designs,” Shahida, Operations Head of Maya Organic, said. This initiative gives job assurance to the artisans. Maya Organic uses only good quality wood and organic colors. “Wood and natural colors do not cause any health problems. We can let children play without any fear,” said Gulab.

Traditional wooden toys of Channapatna are chemical-free. Besides, many studies have proved that the symmetrical shapes and movements of these toys increase hand-eye coordination and motor capacities in children.

Growing awareness about the health hazards of Chinese toys has helped Channapatna toys regain the market in the recent past. Fairs and exhibitions have opened new opportunities. Online marketing has increased the reach of their products. “We have online marketing facilities and export orders from Japan, South Korea, Arab countries and the US,” said Shahida. The craftsmen get bulk orders for corporate programs, star hotels, and seminars.

Chithra Ajith is a journalist based in Kozkikode, Kerala.

This article first appeared on Village Square.