Dec 12, 2009

Channapatna toys

Plastic toys do not charm me as much as a simple wooden spinning top could.

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I was guilt ridden every time I went shopping for toys for my nieces and nephews and friends' children. The amount of plastic and other non-eco-friendly material which go into the value chain troubles me a lot.

Plastic toys end up being landfill and will stay there for a million years to come. If not in the landfill, they reach some water source to break down into minute pieces, harm marine life and thereby enter the food chain. Given these reasons and my strong desire to promote handicrafts from everywhere in the world, I started researching for eco-friendly options.

Solution came in close to home in Channapatna. I looked for pictures online and then realized that I had played with an entire "kitchen set" as a child. It was bought from a small shop in bengaluru. My tops and even teether were channapatna toys but from a shop in tiruchy. I was glad it was a part my childhood. I still remember storing those toys in hand spun palm leaf baskets after my play time.

Palm leaf woven baskets featured here are called Kottan and are from Chettinaad in Tamil Naad..More on this later :)

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The packaging must have made these toys doubly appealing :). I also had a skipping (cotton) rope with colourful wooden handles.

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Although a lot has been written and published, I was surprised to hear that hardly a few people (surveyed mostly people from all parts of India) dint know about these child friendly and non toxic toys.

Best part about channapatna toys:
  • They are made of wood - that makes them naturally germ resistant
  • Vegetable and natural dyes make it lead and chemical free. (a major relief compared to Chinese toys with potential for call backs)

Channapatna toys...A brief history

Channapatna is a small town between Mysore and Bengaluru. It is around 60Km away from Bengaluru city. My amma says we had been to that town and thats where we bought my toys. Wiki mentions that channapatna toys were patronized by Tipu Sultan. It is said that he had invited artisans from persia to train local artists/artisans in making wooden toys.

A woman working on a hand lathe
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Artisans work on hand driven or motor driven lathe machines to mould and craft these amazing toys from simple logs of wood. Here is a video from youtube courtesy: If you notice, none of them is wearing any protective gear. What worries me is their exposure to wood flakes and saw dust and respiratory issues they may face there off.

Traditionally, ivory wood, rosewood and sandal wood were used to craft these fine toys as these wood varieties were locally available and their fine grain beautifully highlight the hand craving and moulding. Conservation laws led to a ban on use of ivory wood. Rose wood and Sandal wood being very expensive did not remain a profitable option anymore. Increased demand for these toys in the domestic and international markets has led to use of neem, cedar, pine, teak, hale or any other locally available cost effective soft wood.

Craftsmen crave out these toys on seasoned wood and colour them by using lacquer and vegetable dyes. Green, red, black, brown, orange, yellow, violet and cream are th commonly used colours.Major sources of colours are plants and minerals. For example the basic yellow is obtained from turmeric, and blue is extracted from Indigo Plant. Here is a video from you tube..look at how the artisan is applying laquer based colours onto a spinning top;

I sourced these pretty picture in the during my research online..aren't these toys well made and charming.... :)..I have my eyes set on these for my children (though they aren't here yet ;-) )

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Image source: wiki

Looking at the above picture..I wish one thing could be different - plastic packaging :(.  There are a hundred different greener options to package these toys. One of them being Palmyra boxes and cases.

Other products

Decorative and utility items including flower vases, bowls, salt & pepper shakers, napkin rings, wall-panels, pen holders, Sports and educational aids, and Jewelry.
Plight of the toy maker

This craft was in decline until in 1964, when Karnataka Handicraft Development Corporation stepped in to set up a facility  with lathes for these artisans. As of today, most of these lathes are under utilized as these artisans hardly make any money.  Karnataka state government has been trying to promote toy making as a small/ mid scale industry in this region. Advent of cheap plastic toys and accessories has made a definite impact on demand for wooden toys and goods. Most of the businesses ae family run and owned,  making artisans' direct access to consumers a difficult thing. Most artisans sell their wares at Cauvery  for a marginal profit.

Despite a great demand for these toys, artisans are still living in deplorable economic conditions. I saw a website (selling these toys in the USA) quote exorbitant prices for these toys. ($$$$$) It pains to see middle men make money and benefit actually not reaching the artisans. I found this interesting video on youtube..thought i'd share it..This is a video shot by a young man on his visit to channapatna...I wanted to share this show the lack of interest for this profession among the younger generation. Although it is heartening to know that they want to study well and branch out, it would be nice if some agency would do genuine work to support artisans and their families.

Disadvantages of increased demand

Although it would be great to kids play with handmade toys rather than mindless fisherprice stuff, excessive demand would have its cons.

Adverse affect of increased demand for wooden toys
  • May lead to deterioration of quality of final product
  • increase in illegal felling of trees (raw material)
  • Increased use of packaging material (read plastic and styrofoam)
  • mass production and shipping mean more green house gases
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    I am stuck at this point for most things in life. I see every child around me live in excess and have a room full of toys. Catering to this kind of demand definitely has a serious impact on the planet, however environment friendly the thing in question may be...If I go this way with my thoughts - God save my kids!!


    1. Awwww... I have a wooden kitchen set stored in the woven palm leaf box. This post of your's made me fish it out and admire it for the n'th time :)

    2. I know how you feel... :)...I love mine too...but I dont have my palm basket is no longer there... Don't you love the feel of wooden toys..AH!

      thank u, once again, for mentioning me in your beautiful blog...I m honoured

    3. Great post Sudha :) I love Channapatna toys... My sister and I hunt through craft fairs to collect them. Dakshinachitra in Chennai has a good collection too :) We recently bought one of these toys that looks like a miniature telephone set (the kind of old telephones with rotating dials). I will send across a picture of it.. please see if you can use it for your post.

    4. Thanks pa

      Please do send it across...I will mention in the post... :)

    5. i had them when we were my daughter has the kitchen set,the top and the chapathi maker.I still remember as preethi said,rolled up in woven palm leaf box....

    6. Hi Lakshmi
      Thats very true...I had it in woven palm boxes too...i dont have mie i sourced the picture of a kottan online :)

    7. Hi Sudha,
      I had the wooden kitchen set and I loved it a lot.Thanks for taking me back to my childhood days.Through your post I came to know those wooden toys name.

    8. thanks SV
      I am glad you like the post...i too used to love my kitchen set :)

    9. I remember getting a set in kanyakumari- choppu set!!


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