In a dimly lit room with the ceiling peeling off at many places, Rukamma P is hard at work. A sack of beads lies close by and next to her is a hacksaw with a blade sharp enough to cut and carve wood. The 40-year-old toymaker is busy carving simple symmetrical toy parts from blocks of wood.
Rukamma has been making toys since she was 15. A quarter century later, she’s an expert, having learnt and mastered the art from her mother. Her earnings are nothing to go to town with but she loves making toys with her hands. “I hardly make Rs 200 a day,” says the mother of two.
She belongs to one of the dwindling tribes of toy-makers of Channapatna, a town 60 kilometers from Bengaluru on the Bengaluru-Mysore highway. Also known as ‘Gombegala Ooru’ or the ‘Land of Toys’, till not a few years ago, Channapatna was famous for its high quality wooden toys (mainly ivory wood), and its lacquerware.
The traditional miniature toys, like spinning tops and dolls, made here are smooth, durable and coloured with natural dyes, making them ideal for children. While some toys are easily manufactured by a single worker, some of them need the effort of multiple workers, designing and producing different parts of the toys and later assembling it together. The time taken to make these eco-friendly toys varies from one to four hours.
Rukamma’s husband is also a toymaker. And so was her son, 24-year-old Gangadhar P, the elder of her two children, till about two years ago.
This was when he and 20 other youth of Channapatna took a bus and left for Bangalore in search of “better, more paying jobs.”
Gangadhar is all for making toys and preserving the identity of the traditional art, but adds, “In today’s situation, we cannot depend on toy-making to take care of our families.” He further mentions that at least 400 toymakers of Channapatna have migrated to Bengaluru to do “all kinds of jobs.”
Most of the 20 who left with him found some work in the big city. Gangadhar himself works in an electronics shop and makes Rs 12,000 a month, four times what he used to earn making toys in Channapatna.
With more and more toymakers giving up the profession and migrating to cities and other towns in search of a better livelihood, today, Chennapatna is a waning town.
While Rukamma uses hand tools to make toys, a few kilometres from her dimly-lit room, in an outlying lane of Channapatna, stands a building that reverberates with the sounds of fast-moving wood cutting machines. A handful of men operate these machines.
This is a toy factory – a Karnataka government initiative started in the year 2000 to mechanise and increase toy production.
The factory comprises of four machines and has unfinished toy parts in huge sacks stacked all over. With left over wooden shavings on the floor and colorfully finished toys in a box ready to be sold, the ramshackle factory is open not only to workers but also to buyers interested in these toys at cheap rates.
Mohan C, 50, a skilled toy-maker from when he was 18, is one of those who make toys using these machines. He says that he has not benefited from the factory. That is because the rise in cost of living has outstripped whatever he can earn by being part of the factory set-up.
He also complains of the frequent power cuts. “I don’t know any other job and I don’t have the option to move out,” says Mohan, adding ominously, “In 10 years there will be no toymaker left in Channapatna.”
Mohan’s 23-year-old son Vinay M is a toymaker-turned-barber. His 12-year-old daughter Devika, a 6th grader, aspires to be a doctor. Even that prospect does not lift Mohan’s spirits. “It’s useless to dream. Why raise expectations when nothing you wish for will ever come true,” says a clearly defeated Mohan.
Similar stories run up and down the streets of this town. One of several towns in Ramanagara district, where the Bollywood blockbuster Sholay was shot, Channapatna is spread across 58,000 hectares and is as big as Mumbai! For centuries, most of the families in this town of 72,000 have been making wooden toys for a living.
But that legacy is now taking a hit from the constant migration of expert toy-makers.
The origins of toy making in Channapatna, which is 65 kilometers from the medieval city of Srirangapatnam, can be traced to the 18th century rule of Tipu Sultan. That was when the monarch brought Persian toymakers to his Sultanate to train local handicraft workers and artisans.
Today, those traditional skills of Channapatna’s toymakers are globally recognised and protected as a geographical indication (GI) by the World Trade Organisation. This ensures that these toys cannot be copied and made anywhere else in the world.
But though the fame and name of Channapatna toys resonates with pride globally, people in the industry have only tales of injustice and grief to narrate.
There are more than 5000 toymakers in Channapatna and 1033 of them are government registered. But the number of artisans has declined drastically in the last decade mainly because of the influx of cheap lookalike China-made toys.
Toymaker Syed Samiullah says cheap, low-quality Chinese toys have killed the market for the nature-friendly Channapatna toys. “Till a few years ago, the town was full of toymakers. Then people migrated to cities,” says Samiullah.
In December 2015, the government on the floor of the Lok Sabha admitted to the harm done to Indian toymakers by Chinese imports. “The Indian toys industry has been hit by the import of Chinese toys,” Giriraj Singh, Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, told the Lower House.
Toy imports increased at a compound annual rate of 25% between 2001 and 2012, says an August 2013 report of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM).
The toy industry in India is concentrated mainly in the small and cottage sectors with about 4,000 manufacturers in all. Nearly 40% of Indian toymakers have already closed shop in the last five years and another 20 per cent are on the verge of calling it a day, says the report.
Efforts by the central and various state governments to save the domestic toy industry have not been of much help.
The Karnataka government provided residential facilities and set up a factory under various schemes for toymakers. “We have allotted 254 houses to toymakers and we constantly buy products from registered toymakers,” said KSHDC (Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd) project manager Naman Sharif to YKA.
He insists that the government has, since 1985, been providing all sorts of relief to the toy-makers of Channapatna including subsidised power and housing. “Yet, they keep coming up with different problems. Their greed knows no limits.”
The state government also set up a factory to help toymakers increase production. But the factory can support only 30 artisans. There are scores of other toymakers who covet similar support.
Take the case of Papanna C, 47, a toymaker who has to work from home and who wants to be part of the factory set-up. “But because of capacity constraints, I could not be accommodated,” says Papanna.
Fact is, these artisans need support in terms of marketing and re-inventing the art to suit today’s markets. And even though the administration has made some half-baked attempts to save the art, it is by recognising the immense potential in these toys, that many young entrepreneurs have come forward to make the toys more appealing to customers.
Firms like Channapatna-based Maya Organic, Bengaluru-based Varnam and Channatoys have introduced online marketing strategies to reach out to more customers. By maintaining quality and constantly innovating designs, these firms have been able to capture large chunks of the market.
Programme coordinator of Maya Organic, Shaheeda Bano commented on the initiatives by government, and said, “Government authorities don’t know the actual requirements of the artisans. They do give different facilities but it doesn’t actually help them.”
She further added that, since the income from toy making isn’t fixed, the government should focus more on training the artisans about modern designs and also come up with a plan or scheme that can substantially help the toymakers rather than acting as middle men.
Over a hundred artisans work with Maya Organic of which 70% are women. Pointing at their condition, Shaheeda opined, “Men in Channapatna have lot of options but the women have no choice.” As an organisation, Maya Organic has its own limitations and can work with only small group of artisans while helping them design their products and market them in a better way.
Such efforts have been successful and if done on a large-scale, could help Channapatna retain its name and fame as the ‘Land of Toys’.
Papanna, who is proud of his toy making skills says that he was taken to Delhi by the government in 2008 to showcase his work at a seminar with the promise that he
would be given a certificate that would help him apply for and secure bank loans.
“I received a certificate, yes. But I couldn’t get any loan despite multiple attempts and efforts,” says Papanna. He looks at his house provided by the government in 1997 and says, “Water leaks from all corners, whenever it rains.”
“Years ago, the town of Channapatna was full of toymakers and as time passed people started moving from here finding it hard to manage their livelihood,” Samiullah recalls, as he walks back to his house from the factory with some colourful spinning tops and bangles wrapped in a bag and tied onto his old bicycle.
Nadeem Ahmed is an independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com.
Elizabeth Mani is a Bengaluru-based independent reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com. She likes covering social and crime stories.
Images courtesy 101 Reporters.
Featured image source: Dibyangshu Sarkar/Getty