Tales from toy land

Manjulika Pramod
Saturday, 13 January 2018

Channapatna in Karnataka is known for its world famous wooden toys. Here’s more from the colourful land that puts a smile on every visitor’s face

New-age gadgets and technological advancements have altered our love for age-old practices and products of exquisite craftsmanship. Competition from outsourced products has also affected the livelihoods of many. Despite the challenges, some traditions have survived.

The art of making wooden (lacquerware) toys in Channapatna is one such tale of art and artisans, which I came across while on my way to Mysore from Bengaluru. 

My artistic encounter started when I came across a huge, green-coloured signboard which read ‘Land of Toys’. Channapatna houses some of the most colourful shops and the town is world famous for its eco-friendly toys. It boasts of wooden toys of all shapes and sizes. 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 — every little toy had the prowess to cast a spell on you.  

The 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 and  the alluring toys comes from the fact that the traditional techniques are still followed by the local artisans who mostly hail from the same village called Neelasandra. 

Keeping the art alive
After having visited three different shops and being impressed by the variety, class, design, creativity and vibrant colours of the toys, I decided to talk to the owner of the fourth shop. I had already discovered that the toys are non toxic and therefore best for children, only natural dyes are used in making them. Besides, the figurines are well rounded and curvaceous with no sharp edges to worry about. 

The shopkeeper, a skilled artisan himself, told me that wood and vegetable dyes are the two main raw materials used for making the toys. Simple carving tools like hand lathe and skilled hands are enough to carve magic on the Doodhi Wood (or milk wood) or Ivory Wood. Once the toys are made from this soft wood, high abrasive property grass is used for polishing and glazing them. 

The shops can fascinate grown-ups too. My interest was also perked up by the availability of jewellery boxes, bangles, keychains, rollers, pencil stands and many other decorative items. To keep the business sustainable, modern machines are also being used. Countries and people who are learning about the use of natural dyes are the potential markets for the toys and other items. 

The owner also informed that stiff competition from Chinese products had 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 meet international demand. 

But now, there is not much sale. But 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 popularise these beautiful, eco-friendly toys and gift them to our children. 
(Manjulika Pramod, who is a short story writer, blogger & traveller, has her website www.manjulikapramod.com)

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