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India’s own toy story

Just 60km away from Bengaluru lies the small town of Channapatna in the Ramanagara district of Karnataka. You may not have heard much about the city, but the artisans in this town bring joy to countless little kids. The town also has a GI tag for its unique art. And the art is wood carved toys.

The Channapatna toys are made from soft ivory wood or ale mara, which is coated with lacquer prepared from vegetable dyes. The colors used in making these toys do not contain harmful chemicals and elements like lead, making them very safe for children, even adults, as well as the environment. The town of Channapatna is known for this unique lacquer art, though toys are what the town is the most known for. At one time, the town was very famous for its walking sticks – Channapatna walking sticks were considered an object of envy and a symbol of prestige. These sticks had a unique round handle and their owners would hold them with pride. Similar handles were also made from umbrellas, though as umbrellas began embracing plastic, these handles got lost in the pages of bygone eras. So, in essence, Channapatna has always been famous for wood crafts, most important and longstanding of which are the toys.

How did Channapatna become the toy town of India?

This ‘playful’ legacy of Channapatna goes back to the times of the legendary Tipu Sultan. It is believed that the emperor had received a lacquered wood toy from Persia back in the 18th century. He was so impressed with the craftsmanship of that toy that he invited artists all the way from Persia to his kingdom to train local artists in making these lacquered wooden toys. It is also believed that these toys could be a result of some new machine tools that were brought to Mysuru in the 19th century. Both Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali were known for experimenting with new machines and would have encouraged the use of tools like the lathe machines for making these colorful lacquered toys. Though, originally these toys were only made of ivory wood, with time other varieties of wood like sandalwood, rosewood, teak, rubber, etc. were also used for making the Channapatna toys. Despite industrial revolutions happening in other parts of the world, this art form of the Channapatna town has remained largely small-scale. Most artisans – both male and female make these toys in or in the vicinity of their homes using minimal mechanization.

In the early 1900s, a local resident of Channapatna – Bawas Miyan, credited with playing an indispensable role in promoting these wooden toys is known to have visited Japan to learn about lacquering and the toy-making processes. Upon his return, he began a school to train the unemployed youth in this craft, further enhancing the local arts and skills. Between the years of 1904 to 1909, Miyan traveled to Japan twice to learn about the different processes, and returned to teach the local population about it.

Did you know?

Tipu Sultan’s administrative language was not Urdu, not Hindi, not Kannada even. It was Persian. Over the course of his rule, Tipu Sultan issues over 6000 farmans and all of them are in Persian. It is believed that Urdu was in a nascent stage at the time of Tipu Sultan’s rule. Now that’s interesting!

How are the Channapatna toys made?

The right type of best-quality wood is gathered from all over the state of Karnataka. Pine wood, sandalwood, ivory wood, and teak is highly preferred. The wood is then seasoned and air-dried to reduce the moisture content in the wood and make it durable. After that, the seasoned wood is cut into the desired shapes and sizes. Later, this cut wood is carved into toys and other goods, such as, key chains, napkin rings, etc. The carved goods are checked for anomalies, and are smoothed out using sandpapers. The product is then lacquered to give it a polished, glossy appearance. After this, the pieces are painted using natural dyes. The colors are obtained using natural ingredients – using turmeric for yellow, kumkum powder for red, vegetables for different colors, etc. The usage of these natural dyes makes it very environment-friendly, non-toxic, and safe for children.

Local artisans say that the wood of the ivory tree is so soft that it cannot be used for anything else except making the Channapatna toys. Moreover, using this wood or any of the other materials that are used in this craft do not have any health impacts on any of the workers engaged in this craft. The craft of making the Channapatna toys is over 200 years old now, and no artisan has ever faced any health hazards on account of working in this craft. Workers spend 30-40 years, sometimes more involved in making toys, and none of the materials are known to have any negative health impacts. This should give you an idea about how safe these toys would be for the children.

Earlier, villages like Byadarahalli, Hunnur, and Yellakere were also actively involved in making the wooden toys, though now the craft is quite limited to Channapatna. And it is seriously endangered.

Are there really Channapatna toys in the White House?

Yes, likely there are. During their 2010 visit to India, then FLOTUS Michelle Obama visited the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum in Delhi where there were various stalls exhibiting the different arts and crafts of the country. President Obama had gone on to Hyderabad House to meet then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while the First Lady bought artistic bedspreads, beaded necklaces, dolls, etc. at the Museum. One of the things she was super delighted about was the Channapatna toys. It is known that she picked a train toy, three Ganesha idols, and about ten key rings. So, at least for the duration of the Obama administration, the Channapatna toys were definitely present at the White House. However, their status post this time is unknown. But isn’t it impressive that the cute Channapatna toys impressed the First Lady, and were part of her Christmas gifts and gifts for the Obama girls – Sasha and Malia!

More recently, the young Prince of Bhutan has also been a recipient of the Channapatna toys.

Impact of the Pandemic

At a time when the country is putting in significant efforts to being #vocalforlocal, and boycotting cheaper toy imports from countries like China, it is important to recognize and promote local crafts & arts. The Channapatna toys received a GI tag from the Geographical Indications Registry in 2006. And unfortunately, this art is becoming quite an endangered art now. Artisans are moving on to other professions or migrated to urban areas in search of ‘greener pastures’. The simple wooden toys that are quite a joy to have are losing out against cheap imported toys powered by batteries and packed with multiple features and media. The coronavirus pandemic has also taken its toll, making the lives of these skilled artisans even more difficult.

From Tipu Sultan to the White House, what a journey these toys have had. While it is important for artists to upgrade and evolve with changing times, it is equally important for us, the audience, to support and encourage local artists and craftsmen. While there are a few NGOs and even government agencies who are working actively to promote these toys, it is essential that we too do our bit. And its not for nothing. Besides helping an artisan, when we buy Channapatna toys, we add a classic charm and beauty to our shelves – kids or no kids. They make for excellent gifts, and are really unique. Imagine giving your friend a gift that they wouldn’t find online easily or even in their neighborhood gift shop, something heartfelt and unique! There are some eCommerce websites that do sell these toys online, so you wouldn’t have to fly down to Channapatna to get these toys. If you search well, you’ll find these on Amazon too.

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