Channapatna is a laid-back town tucked on the highway between Bengaluru and Mysore. One may not notice the town in the speeding traffic of the highway, but the series of wooden toy stores that dot this stretch of the highway is unmissable. Popular in Karnataka as the ‘Gombegala Nagara’ (Town of toys), Channapatna is a cluster of wooden manufacturing toys and a traditional vocation for hundreds of families.
With a history of over 200 years, the Channapatna craft cluster today engages over 3,000 people directly and indirectly in the production of lacquerware, sourcing of materials, marketing and selling. The industry employs both wood artisans and manufacturers of lacquer, without which the toys are incomplete. The wooden toys produced here are unique and showcase the finest talents in crafting.
Utilising Indian Ivorywood
These toys are mainly made from Indian ivorywood or milkwood, which is easy to carve out different shapes and also give a polished look to the wooden toys. The art of making these toys requires a high amount of creativity and panache. The skilled artisans employed in these small-scale industries work in their small spaces and create these elegant toys. The lacquering process for these wooden toys and artefacts are from a mixture of vegetable dyes and food-grade pigments with natural shellac residue. Hence the toys are completely environment-friendly and non-toxic too. The Channapatna wood products consist of not just toys and wooden dolls, but several traditional mathematical games and puzzles. The famous rocking horse toy, wooden serpents, intricately assembled wooden crocodiles, and wooden trains are all products of the Channapatna toy industry.
With the advent of the Chinese toy industry based out of cheap plastic taking centre stage about two decades ago, the Channapatna toy industry saw a setback in demand. In 1996-97, India exported toys worth Rs 245 crore while it imported toys worth Rs 52.88 crore. By 2006-07 the imports exceeded the exports. Many traditional artisans had to change professions to feed their families. As the business stagnated, many artisans had to find solutions themselves.
Mohammad Gurhan of Mohammad Salar & Sons in Channapatna tells us that he brought his machine and saved both time and effort and was also able to create superior quality toys. Today Gurhan employs ten people in his manufacturing facility and five from his own family are involved in the process. Gurhan and his family are traditionally involved in the manufacturing of wooden toys. Though the demand for Channapatna toys is good nationally, he says that we need more support and direction from the Government to sell internationally.
Ilyas of Bharath Art and Crafts, one of the trusted toy factories in Channapatna and famous for their curtain rings and ornaments made from wood, is also upbeat about the prospect of selling his craft internationally, especially after the fillip given to ‘Make in India’ products by the present Government. He says that he is wary of middlemen and requests the Government to take the lead and create a market for them to sell their wares overseas. He also says that since lacquer’s price has seen a steep increase, individual craftsmen and factories find it difficult to cope with the price rise.
The State Government and the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation in an effort to boost both manufacturing and sales, set upthe Channapatna Crafts Park in 2013 to help preserve, nurture and grow the skills of the artisans by providing them with employment opportunities. This has been done through the provision of infrastructure and manufacturing facilities to exporters engaged in the production of woodcraft and natural fibre products. The infrastructure and facilities of the Park are also available to architects, Designers and Companies for crafting and manufacturing of wooden products and lacquerware.
Indigenous Toys Superior to Chinese
The town once employed more than 5,000 people in the process of toy manufacturing. Though the numbers have decreased today, machines have taken over the place of many artisans. Today, an artisan working in the toy industry earns anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 per month. Many of those in the industry to whom we spoke opine that Government should take more interest in Channapatna toys and market them well nationally and internationally. They also wish that the Government educates people about the harmful Chinese toys made from plastics compared to completely safe wooden toys from Channapatna.
Channapatna toys are protected by the Geographical Indications (GI) tag/ status under the World Trade Organisation. The Government has to take immediate steps to safeguard traditional art by providing good avenues nationally and internationally for the manufacturers and artisans. Better opportunities to sell their wares will stem the tide of migration of artisans to other vocations and provide employment to thousands in a traditional industry whose products are eco-friendly and safe for children.