Monday, October 12, 2009

When Alice Went to Toyland

There is a belief among the media, an informal one, that once you work at Indian Express, there is this strange attachment that you develop, something that only a person who has worked there will ever understand. A while ago now, I was flipping through something and came across this old article of mine that I had written for Sunday Express. I remember that trip so well, the one to Channapatna.
The toys from there that I grew up playing with, so the place was especially moving for me. I just had to paste it here.

Read the story here, originally published in the Sunday Express on Jan 13, 2008.

And here is the story, in case the link does not work:

Alice in Toyland:

Does the survival of art mean art in its original form, I wonder. To a puritan, the digression of the artisans at Channapatna could mean the shameful fading out of an institution that staggered on for almost a dozen decades. But can that evolving tradition be seen as one last desperate attempt before the final blow of modernity, of Barbie dolls and GI Joes, strikes? That is the question I want to seek answers to at the lazy little town of Channapatna, 60 kms from Bangalore, home to the world renowned, very colorful wooden toys.

We travel to Kalanagar, just off the state highway. It is the main production hub for the toys, we are told and even before we can stop to ask for directions, we spot the Lacquerware Craft Complex, a common facility owned by the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited. Predictably, the officer in charge reels off a list of statistics: 6.5 acres of land around the facility, 254 houses leased to artisans, 1,000 registered workers, 6,000 who know how to make the famed toys, 3,000 of whom are currently working, about 150 exporters, between Rs 20-25 for one kg of ‘Aale-wood’, which is used to make the toys. The officer points out that wood is supplied not by the Forest Department but by private parties. He is quick to assert that almost all of the artisans are “comfortable” and earn well, with the generous help of the government, of course. It is one fact that we are soon able to refute, after some digging around.

The common facility is a blessing for several artisans though. It houses several power driven machines that saw the wood and help shape it to the required design. About 15-20 skilled artisans each pay Rs 90 per month for one machine, and share the electricity bill. They also buy their own wood and their own colours. And therein begins their tale of woe.

Siddappa looks very old, the deep lines on his face filled to the brim with saw dust from wood shavings. His father was a potter but government training got him inducted in the toy making industry. Misty-eyed, he rues the fact that he can now earn only Rs 250-300 per week, while the younger workers could earn that amount in one day itself. The pinks and oranges and yellows are made from lac and colours that cost up to Rs 200, he says. Contrary to my assumption that it is a dying industry, Siddappa says that the demand for Channapatna products is growing, more so in the international market, but what is crippling is the raising costs of production.

The craftsmen shape the wood at the factory and colour it. The final product is made at their homes, where, most often, several other members of the family are also involved. The finished artifacts are then either sold to the government units or to private parties and exporters. Several households in Kalanagar engage in ‘‘patri-work’, shaping and making the toys using hand driven devices quite similar to a lathe.

On any given day, the woman of a household would be juggling her cooking, minding her children and using the Patri to make colorful key chains and toys, her hands working the Patri at the blink of the eye. Most, like Rukkamma, try to maintain strict “office hours” and work before the “kids come home”. Though she happily demonstrates for us, Rukkamma finishes her work earlier than usual because work went on till midnight the previous night, she says. For all of this, her family would take home up to Rs 150 per day. “It is a very profitable field if we market our produce but we choose to sell it at low rates in the wholesale market rather than get into the hassle of marketing,” says her husband Papanna. I spot a tinge of pride in his voice when he says his daughter Ramya learnt the art by observing, just like he did from his father. She goes to school though.

The art of making Channapatna toys has been around since 1924 when one ‘Iskul Babasmia’ (called so because he started a school to train artisans) learnt the art in Japan and brought it to the then Mysore state. It is another story that the patriotic Mia committed suicide because he did not want to serves in the British army.

In the late 1980s, the government leased out houses to the artisans under various schemes. Most continue to sit for work under weather-beaten, framed copies of the lease document that occupies center stage amongst collages of local film stars and other entertainment paraphernalia. Nearly half have repaid the lease amounts but the houses have not yet been registered in their names. Amanulla Khan of Shahid Handicrafts, a largely export oriented unit, initially feigns indifference at having to give yet another interview. But soon he begins to list out a set of problems that he says are ruining livelihoods.

Contrary to the peachy view the government officer was trying to feed us with, Khan tells us that it is a wonderful and very profitable field to be in, but he would not encourage people to get into it because of the obvious lack of facilities from the government. His lament includes a mention of the lack of wood, unscheduled power cuts, subsequent delay in supply to exporters and the ensuing problems. He is also setting up a union of artisans to regulate prices and fight for their rights. Md Sayeed, another artisan, talks of the strict export requirements that he has to adhere to when he sends his painted bracelet pieces to Delhi for assembling and exporting.

If there was a cataloguing of hues, the products of Channapatna would cause a riot of colours. From Russian dolls to bullock carts to rocking horses to intricately designed vintage cars and spinning tops to whistles, pipes, slices of life depicted in wood, baby rattles, curtain rings and mantle pieces to fashion accessories, the stores of Channapatna present a invasion of every conceivable colour to the senses. The kind of toys that I played with when I was little now occupy a much smaller shelf space. What sells is stuff that fashion sensitive households want to keep in a discreet corner to add a dash of ethnic colour. The lacquering technique is being passed on, though the original products are no longer wanted in the market. At least the technique survives, I keep telling myself. Near blinded by the fantastic vortex of hues, colours that are drawn from lives in India, I cannot make up my mind if this manner of survival is good for the art form in itself or not.

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