Not a happy toy story: The fate of Channapatna’s wooden wonders awaits a rattling comeback

ByFathima Ashraf

Published Oct 22, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Oct 22, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Channapatna toys are traditional handicrafts, and their history dates back to the time of Tipu Sultan. (Supplied)

When the schools close for Dasara, it’s customary for most Bengaluru-settled families to take a quick road trip to Mysuru, the closest holiday destination. If you are someone who’s done it, you’d remember being greeted by brightly coloured wooden dolls, horses, trains, rattle toys, and trinkets somewhere halfway along the way. And that’s the sign you have arrived at Channapatna, the land of toys.

The greater prominence of the Channapatna toys can be traced to patronage from Tipu Sultan. (Supplied)

The greater prominence of the Channapatna toys can be traced to patronage from Tipu Sultan. (Supplied)

A small town in the Ramanagara district of Karnataka, Channapatna (aka Gombela Ooru/Toy Town) comes alive during Dasara, a time when dolls take the centre stage in the households of revelers. Culturally unique and eco-conscious, the Channapatna toys, far from regular toys, are a traditional handicraft that date back at least 200 years. Owing to its cultural relevance, quality, and non-toxic production methods, the GI-tagged toys remain a constant for Navaratri Golu or Gombe Habba decor, and as gifts.

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Wooden wonders

As is the norm, the toy manufacturers are busy this festival season. Among their extensive collection that’s on offer, one can find everything from characters and stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana, Yakshagana and Kathakali dolls, miniature couple dolls and a variety of animals among others.

Suhel Parvez, a fifth generation business owner of Bharath Art & Craft says their highlight this year is the Chandrayaan-inspired rocket miniature. He says, “We had made a toy as a tribute to the team behind the mission when it happened. Everyone including ISRO officials took notice. Now we are working on making a model in collaboration with ISRO.”

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Innovation is key for business building

Rattles, spinners,  stackers, roly-poly — there are always seekers for the traditional Channapatna toys. However, there is a need to update the models for the younger generation. 

A toy tribute to Chandrayaan. (Supplied)

A toy tribute to Chandrayaan. (Supplied)

Vijay Pathi, founder of toy company Oodees tells South First, “I have hired a designer from NID Ahmedabad to create new toy designs. Incidentally, he comes from a traditional Channapatna family. With him, we have developed over 40 new toy designs and introduced them to the market. We have also developed modern packaging which is lacking in Channapatna.”

One of their latest designs is a toy of Raavan where you get the body and ten heads separately. The game for the kids is to balance all the heads on the body.

However, there are limitations to how much they can innovate using traditional techniques. He adds, “The toys are made using ivory wood and we also use vegetable dyes to make them non-toxic and child-friendly. So we have a maximum of 5-6 colors as opposed to synthetic dyes where you have hundreds of options.”

It’s important to give the toys a contemporary touch while keeping the traditional element. Suhel adds, “These days people prefer teaching toys. Now we make modern kitchen sets with a gas stove and everything for the children. Earlier we used to make miniatures but now people prefer bigger toys so they can teach the kids.”

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Dwindling numbers  

While the festival time sees a rise in sales, it remains a struggle rest of the year. Fourth-generation manufacturer at Channapatna Toys, Meer Arif shares that the sale is good only twice a year — during Dasara and Christmas.

With no proper back up or marketing, the Channapatna toy industry faced a financial crunch for more than a decade. (iStock)

With no proper back up or marketing, the Channapatna toy industry faced a financial crunch for more than a decade. (iStock)

Arif points out the lack of export orders as one reason. “Around 30-35 years back, there used to be a lot of orders for exports. During that time, many worked in the industry and owned factories. But now, the orders have drastically reduced. When the work became less, many moved to Bengaluru and other cities looking for jobs,” he shares adding that even though there is demand for the toys now, people aren’t making them.

The Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway has also negatively affected the the livelihood of artisans, notes Suhel.

He says, “The past two years have not been successful for the people of Channapatna. Travellers used to stop at factories and small roadside shops to buy toys. Now since the vehicles are diverted to the highway, businesses are affected.”

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Save the artisans

The selection of the main wood, seasoning, cutting, pruning, carving, and finally, colouring, is a long process. The shortage of skilled workers is another challenge when it comes to fulfilling orders, Vijay shares.

New companies and social enterprises have been reviving the Channapatna craft to suit modern tastes. (iStock)

New companies and social enterprises have been reviving the Channapatna craft to suit modern tastes. (iStock)

“The making of these toys requires a lot of skill. Each part of the toy has to be separately made and then assembled. It’s hard to find replacements when the workers are on leave.”

The challenges are not just with production but sales as well.

“In India, people will pay for battery-operated and remote-controlled toys but not for wooden toys. Many think of it as a low-value item available on the street. Given the cost of living these days as well as the production costs, if the workers can’t make at least ₹600 per day, they don’t want to continue in this line of work,” he adds.

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Government has to step up

While the sales numbers dwindle and production costs get high, many of these toymakers are looking for ways to stay afloat. They want the government to step up and take action.

Promotion of the craft will help with the sales. (iStock)

Promotion of the craft will help with the sales. (iStock)

“The government has to help with providing the latest technology to the artisans. Channapatna toys have been around for generations and have huge potential for sale in other countries. With the right kind of marketing, people would even visit looking for the toys. We need help in promoting this craft,” shares Arif.

A little support goes a long way for the traditional craftsmen who are facing an unsure future for their craft. He adds, “From my childhood, I have seen the harsh reality of the artisans. I know the effort that goes into making a single toy. I want to see Channapatna toys reach heights, go global.”

Channapatna toys are tangible expressions of a rich heritage and craftsmanship. Next time you see them by the road or at a shop, make sure to buy a few. They make for great souvenirs. More importantly, purchasing them is a way you can support local artisans.

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