Knots of IdentityLocation - Rajkot
A small town in the state of Karnataka, Channapatna is famous for its wooden toys, lacquered to a fine finish with some of the most vibrant colours ever seen on toys. The artists take great care in smoothing down every surface and in using natural dyes that are safe for children. Originally, the toys were made from ivory-wood, rosewood and sandalwood.
It's a refreshing change to see houses of all shapes and sizes painted in bright and beautiful colours unlike the busy cities we live in. It seems like these houses are made and decorated with the same care a bird makes its nest, one piece at a time.
Apart from art and crafts, colours also play a part in religious rituals at local temples. I walked through the markets and noticed heaps of yellows, reds and pinks.
Cattle rest in a shed after a tiring morning shift at work. Bullock carts are used to transfer the precious raw materials and other products around the town. The cattle and the cart are both decorated with paint and bells.
I visited a warehouse of toys that was run by the local government. Batches of toys from various workshops are sorted and catalogued here, before moving out to the market. I found it endearing to see colour applied in unexpected ways to the warehouse itself.
Charan's family runs a small manufacturing unit. They take a small loan from the bank each season and work throughout the year to repay it. I have seen very few young people involved in this art.
These simple tools are no less than magic wands in the hands of the expert craftsmen. I saw hammers, chisels and simple everyday tools, fashioning wood and lacquer into vibrant playthings for children.
The skilled artists in the warehouses are ambidextrous. They use the same proficiency in carving the wood into beautiful shapes as they do with using the lathe machines that the wood is fixed to.
A craftsman carefully sands a toy for smoothness. Hours go into perfecting every single toy that goes out of the workshop. After all, they go into the delicate hands of children.
The glossy lacquer polish dries up almost instantly due to the heat produced by the friction. The gleam and shine add more dimension to the colour and make the toys safe for children.
Since the toys of Channapatna are made primarily for children, it is essential for them to use non-toxic and non-chemical colours. Vegetable based dyes combined with lacquer is used to apply the polish seen on these toys.
A set of bright red toys stands out in stark contrast against wood shavings in a factory in Channapatna. More often that not, toys are made in bulk and shipped out together to stores nearby.
Though the toy making industry mostly consists of men, I have seen a fair share of women working in home manufacturing units. Such units mostly have a family of artists working together and participating at different stages of the process.
A toy giraffe is waiting for it's turn to be primed. The artists later use stencils along with spray paints for the patterns and other details. Larger toys and toys with moving parts involve more than one artist in the process.
An artist paints the frames of the rocking horses you see in the background, before it gets passed onto another artist who will apply fine details to the toy.
The rocking horse is perhaps the most famous toy made in Channaptna. This classic has survived the test of time and is still very popular among children.
Since Channapatna is not a major city, there are regular load-shedding and unexpected power outages. These leave the factories and other small units that use the lathe machines crippled for several hours in a day.
In a quiet corner of the city, an elderly gentleman is silently sitting outside his house and making wooden beads. These wooden beads are stringed together to make a seat cover for cars.
Cars have wheels that turn, many toys have bobbing actions and more. I found it interesting to see the level of detail that went into the design of each of these toys.
I wondered to myself more than once: is that toy a giraffe, or is it a duck? These brightly coloured toys will easily attract your attention. Identifying them though is another matter altogether.
The origin of the craft of wooden toy making was under the reign of Tipu Sultan, who was known as the Tiger of Mysore. These toy soldiers are a tribute to the glorious military past of the place.
Tiny pink percussion instruments, miniatures of the Indian "mridangam", sit in a bright tray in a store. I wonder what the child of today makes of these toys which are clearly from a different era, a different age.
I was surprised to find that these were not just toys, they were representations of the society that the toymakers live in.
Music played a very important role throughout the history of Karnataka. It is not a surprise that even the toys in Channapatna are fashioned to look like musicians or musical instruments.
While Channanapatna's toys are the most famous export, there is a lot more that these master craftsmen produce. Home decorations, for example. The town is awash in colour from a million different ornaments and decorations.
Much like the toys they make, the workshops of Channapatna and in fact even the houses were painted in bright attractive colours. It adds a much needed contrast to spaces otherwise filled with wood and machines.
I found Channapatna to be disorienting: the toys there took me back at least 20 years. To a time when things like this brightly coloured top were commonplace. The town, and the craft, seems like a time out of time.
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