- The Channapatna toy-making tradition, bearing a distinctive Persian influence, traces its roots back to the 18th century and is known for its safety standards for children and environmental friendliness.
- The popularity of Channapatna lacquerware and toys is showing a downward trend as modern aspirations take younger generations away from ancestral professions.
- Experts say that traditional toy-making needs Geographical Indication tags along with concerted effort in innovation, promotion and awareness building, to survive.
Squatting on the veranda against the bright pink wall of her modest home, Boramma focuses her strength and attention on the spindle with a piece of wood mounted on it. In her hand, she wields a tool crafted from bamboo and silk string, resembling a bow in a mythological play. The string is attached to the spindle and as it rhythmically moves back and forth, it molds the soft wood into perfect rounds and ovals. To refine the wooden spheres, Boramma employs sandpaper to smooth their edges. Vibrant shades of purple and green lacquer are then applied to the spinning goblets, using pieces of dried palm fronds. Boramma explains that these colorful wooden orbs will later be assembled into keychains by someone else in Channapatna town.
Boramma, a middle-aged artisan, practices the ancient woodcraft of Pattari in the quaint town of Channapatna in Ramanagara district, approximately 60 km southwest of Bengaluru in Karnataka. A resident of Neelasandra village, she is one of the 150 or so artisans dedicated to crafting wood entirely by hand. Reflecting on her craft, Boramma shared, “I learned the art from my father 20 years ago. However, I don’t wish for my daughters to follow in my footsteps and pursue this craft. It is a lot of labour for minimal returns.” Boramma currently earns Rs. 150 a day for crafting beads destined for the local market.
Her neighbours, Jogaiah and Chandru, are engaged in crafting superior lacquered wooden spheres for export. Chandru emphasised the stringent standards required for these beads, stating, “The beads have to be of perfect export quality. If even one fails to meet the standards, the entire batch may be returned.”
These export orders are typically contracted through intermediaries, as explained by Jogaiah. Each artisan is compensated Rs. 300 for delivering 100 flawless pieces per day. The meticulously crafted wooden spheres play a crucial role in the creation of various items, ranging from jewellery and toys to tableware and car seat covers. The precision and attention to detail in their work underscore the significance of maintaining high-quality standards in this traditional craft.
An eco-friendly craft that needs more attention
Channapatna is locally known as Gombegala Ooru or toy town for a traditional form of toy making dating back to the 18th century, practised by local artisans here. The distinct Persian influence of the art can be attributed to the erstwhile ruler of Mysore state, Tipu Sultan who brought artisans from Persia to help boost the craft. With the introduction of lathes, handcrafted toys made way for machine-generated ones but many segments of the Channapatna wood craft are still made by hand. A 2021 study puts the number of artisans in Channapatna at 4000. They work out of 250 homes and 50 small manufacturing units which include freelancers and those employed in registered toy making units.
Made from locally available softwood of aale mara or ivory wood (Wrightia tinctoria), the artefacts are manufactured in parts, then assembled and painted using lacquer which is organic and natural, making the toys safe for children and the environment. According to a 2018 study that made a life cycle assessment of both Channapatna wooden toys and mass-produced plastic toys from China found the Channapatna toy manufacturing to be six times more energy efficient than the PVC toys from China. The study also assessed the global warming potential and human toxicity potential of both toys and found the China-made toys to emit more carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide during its life cycle and are way more toxic than the softwood toys, affecting not just humans but also the biotic and abiotic components of the environment. The plastic toys cause lead and cadmium poisoning while Channapatna toys are non-toxic, said the author of the paper Tarun Kumar, a PhD scholar at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
India’s toy market surges but artisanal toys can’t catch up
India’s toy market is among the fastest-growing globally, boasting a market size of $1.7 billion in 2023, as reported by the International Market Research and Consulting Group (IMARC). The market is anticipated to surge to $4.4 billion by 2032. To harness this considerable potential and counter the influx of toys from countries such as China, the Indian government has implemented various initiatives in recent years. These include events like toy hackathons, the Atma Nirbhar toy challenge and the annual Indian toy fairs. For some time, it was speculated that the government would extend the PLI (production linked incentive) scheme, announced in 2020 to attract investments in 14 sunrise and strategic sectors that could boost manufacturing and exports to the toy sector as well.
Channapatna toys are popular for their endearing designs and have made news internationally too. During one of her visits to New Delhi in 2010, the former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama bought the toys and later in 2015, 15 decorative items from Channapatna flew with the then U.S. President Barack Obama to the White House on demand. The one-and-a-half year old prince of Bhutan was gifted a set of Channapatna toys in 2017 by the then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Despite its reputation as unique, a visit to the toy town gives one the impression that it could be a dying art. Many artisans do not want their children to take up the ancestral profession and have enrolled them at colleges in the cities.
B. Venkatesh (48) who runs a successful unit named Sri Beereshwara Arts and Crafts reminisced the time he fought against his father’s wishes to make him an engineer to take up the wood craft. He learned every aspect of the craft from his father. His thriving business employs 30 artisans. “I was motivated to make this work. I can do everything except painting. It gives me satisfaction to do it,” he said. One of his employees, Umar (44), was patiently applying colours and features to a doll when we met him. Umar’s family was traditionally into doll-making but only he pursued it while his siblings and cousins took up other professions.
GI tag needs to be enforced to deal with imitations
According to the local people, the popularity and demand for lacquerware once prompted many individuals to cultivate ivory wood trees to meet the market’s needs. However, the 2021 study indicates a decline in the craft’s popularity among the youth, primarily attributed to inadequate pay and subpar working conditions. The influx of China-made replicas of Channapatna toys in the market a few years ago further jeopardised the already fragile industry. Despite being granted the GI (geographical indication) tag in 2005 to combat duplication, artisans claim it has not significantly benefited them. Gita Ram, the director of the Crafts Council of India, emphasised that while GI tags aim to legally protect indigenous and original products, enforcement is lacking, rendering it ineffective for craftsmen.
In the past, artisans used to exhibit their craft in small shops along the highway connecting Bengaluru and Mysuru. The introduction of a six-lane expressway, reducing travel time between the two cities, has posed another obstacle for artisans from selling their products directly to customers. Kiran, who operates a toy shop by the expressway, reported a significant decline in business since the expressway became operational. He stated, “Earlier, travellers would stop by to purchase artefacts. We used to generate a business of Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000 on weekends and about half of that on weekdays. Now, we barely make Rs. 25,000 on weekends and Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 on weekdays.”
Better innovation needed to sustain the craft
Channapatna Crafts Park, established a decade ago, aims to revive and popularise the traditional art of Channapatna toys. Sponsored by state and central government organisations, the park supports numerous toy-making units, provides artisans access to wood-working machines, and conducts training programmes for emerging talents. The park’s director, Sreekala Kadidal, dismissed concerns about the expressway, stating it only affected a small number of roadside shopkeepers. She noted a growing demand for lacquerware, particularly contemporary educational toys, both domestically and internationally. The park conducts regular training sessions, having trained 300 artisans last year. They encourage women to participate for additional income during free time.
Tarun Kumar said that the Channapatna toys occupy a niche market and suggested embracing innovative designs, promoting public awareness regarding their safety and benefits as a means to sustain the craft. Kiran, however, highlighted the challenge of meeting demand for new designs due to a shortage of craftsmen, with many leaving the profession for better opportunities. Labour charges too have risen to meet the demand for new designs.
Venkatesh attributed his successful business to openness to innovation. He collaborates with design students from prestigious institutes like National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and National Institute of Design (NID). While admitting new and innovative designs are all the rage, he said old designs are in demand, too, but there is a shortage of artisans capable of recreating old designs. Venkatesh’s advice to young, aspiring artists is simple: “If you enjoy what you do, the process becomes enjoyable. Complaining about the difficulty will only perpetuate the challenge.”
Banner image: One of the artisans in Neelasandra village in Channapatna shows export-quality beads made by her. The small wooden beads made by local artisans are later assembled into toys and artefacts. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Mongabay.