M.V. Gopalan’s colourful toys captured the imagination of children from the 1940s to the 1980s. A canter down memory lane.

“Opportunity comes dressed in overalls looking like work,” famously quipped Thomas Alva Edison.

When I mention Rockytoys to an avowed Chennai resident, she recalls with delight, “Rockytoys! I still have an old set of building blocks from 40 years ago. The blocks fit compactly in a wooden box, a perfect seat for a child when shut. They made adorable wooden walkers. Who would ever imagine the world would change so much?”

Till the late 1980s, Rockytoys on General Patters Road in Madras sold toys: papier-mâché dolls that flew off the shelves, Dinky toys, Bug, Dix and other cars with three-letter words, jeeps and trucks that rolled their way into hearts, abacuses, building blocks and carom boards. Bigger and better than every toy was the ever-popular rocking horse from which the shop got its name. Rockytoys was the largest distributor of wooden toys in South India for several decades. M.V. Gopalan, the owner, had humble beginnings as a carpenter, invented and re-envisioned his role as designer and entrepreneur of a toyshop and factory. Modern Agencies ushered a new era in wooden toys.

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The Taramani Road in Velachery is chock full with traffic moving slowly as we drive looking for a side street. We park on an empty stretch and walk down a narrow lane. Through an entrance concealed by a thicket we enter Balaji’s toy workshop where a merry mix of order and disorder reigns. Rocking horses in red, pink and green assemble on a platform. Balaji uses recycled materials from building scrap for several parts, a formula inherited from Gopalan’s time. Three others assist him: his brother, a young boy and an old man. Etty, now 85, an old-timer of Modern Agencies, once supervised a team of 25 painters.

“I use templates now, those days I did not,” says Etty. “We had machines for everything else; a huge factory with 400 employees.”

Balaji — who trained with M.P. Manohar, Gopalan’s son — now makes 200 rocking horses a month as well as Baby Riders, his established trade for 17 years. He distributes them through a few outlets in Chennai, including Thanga Narayana and Singapore Shopping in Velachery, and Jai Sports in Tiruvanmiyur, selling in a small but consistent way. The rockers sell for about Rs.1,700 at the stores.

Few would have the gumption to carve out boundaries like Gopalan did in unknown territory to pave the way for those ahead. The semi-industrial corridor we passed to get here was once a verdant forest visited by deer and monkeys, the calls of birds and humming of cicadas in the surrounds of a toy-factory in Guindy, where Gopalan once sat like a wizard with his wand churning out a Lilliputian land.

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Manohar recalls returning from school to a veritable toy-house. “Other kids went out and got toys, but we made toys!” Earning accolades in model making from a young age, Manohar joined NID for graphic design in 1973 and later designed bamboo products for the handicrafts sector in the Northeast. In the 1980s, he ran Rockytoys before he closed it down. An ardent craftsman, Manohar shows me his recently completed scale model of a mall, the first in Madurai with movie theatres. “I am a maker of big and little things,” he banters, placing a yellow bird with legs of movable wooden blocks on an incline where it shuttles down, gravity and friction admirably aiding its walk. “Walking Bird!” He turns to another creation, a nifty table for a contemporary dancer. “It’s designed to flip on its side and move on concealed casters.” Manohar teaches at MIDAS School of Architecture and runs workshops at CEPT, Ahmedabad and in Chennai at the Dakshina Chitra and NIFT. Manohar’s well-equipped workshop is his universe.

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“I always remember 1974 when I redesigned the Mini-Wheeler series. That evening at Rockytoys, an entire shelf was sold out in record time, even though we had notched up the price,” says M.P. Ranjan. So he discovered that customers would willingly pay more for quality products. From 1974 to 1976, back from NID, designer Ranjan developed toys with a zest, imparting his sense of colour, simplifying product making and form. His second innings with Rockytoys firmly secured his belief about how certain qualities by design could support the small-scale industry. Encouraged by Gopalan to follow his heart, this older son returned to NID as Furniture Design faculty till 2010. A strong supporter of Indian handicrafts, Ranjan was instrumental in the inception of IICD, Jaipur. Two well-recognised compilations Ranjan has co-authored are Handmade in India, Mapin, 2007, and Bamboo & Cane Crafts of Northeast India, Govt. of India, 1986. Currently Design Chair, CEPT Ahmedabad, he is surrounded by his favourite world of bamboo and handicraft and his ever-engaged students.

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A raring-to-go farmer’s son from Cannanore setting out to learn carpentry had fulfilled a half-century old dream of the French Mission from Puducherry.

There were craftsmen from Channapatna who made beads for the abacus, there were families in Saidapet who made toys from their homes and there were 400 workers at the factory. Gopalan’s singular achievement was that he gave employment to many, empowering them to earn a decent salary. Years later, an old foreman makes kitchen cabinets, an ex-factory worker’s son fashions objects from coconut shells and yet another makes scale models.

Above and beyond, there were thousands who played with the toys. Anaka Narayanan reminisces, “I liked that the building blocks were so conducive to building what I wanted. They were simple shapes but you could produce the most complicated things. You could plan as you go along, unlike a jigsaw puzzle that makes you fit the pieces to a definite conclusion.”

In the possibilities to change and re-order, there is freedom. People are products of their times, like design. Gopalan’s greatest legacy to all those he touched are the virtual building blocks he gifted, for many to make their plans; some simple, others complex, towards unique achievements.

A Brief Timeline

Early 20th Century Puducherry: The Montfortian Mission of then French colony of Puducherry envisions a vocational training school for boys, aiming to build skills and jobs to match the pace of industrial production. Tindivanam is their chosen site.

1914: Chova, Cannanore: M.V. Gopalan is born, on January 14.

1918: Tindivanam: Carpentry and Cabinetry programme begins with just six students at St. Joseph’s Industrial School

1936: Tindivanam: M.V. Gopalan enrols in Carpentry programme at St. Joseph’s

Late 1930’s Madras: Wren Bennett, high quality cabinet-makers employ Gopalan. World War II accelerates. Wood supply from Burma stops. Gopalan moves to Guindy Engineering College and teaches students aircraft manufacturing using spruce wood and stretched canvas, finally coating with dope.

1942: Madras: Gopalan opens Modern Agencies with three employees. Starts making toys with scrap wood, launching his formula integrating design, recycled materials and manufacturing. Devises jigsaw and sand-papering machine, using a hand-operated cartwheel pulley, revolutionising toy production. His first toy is the rocking horse, sold off streets on pushcarts and bicycles

1940’s to 1950’s Madras: Gopalan makes first scale model for Guindy Engineering College. Diversifies to school furniture, Montessori model toys and specialised components for industries. Factory not yet powered by electricity.

1947: M.V. Gopalan marries K.P Sowmini.

1950: Madras M.P. Ranjan is born on November 9, Deepavali day. Propitiously both house and factory get electricity connection

1951: M.P. Manohar is born

1958 Madras: Gopalan hires Italian designer, Botticelli. They design flush doors replacing panel doors in breakthrough new technology. Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra commissions Gopalan to build the new auditorium and 14 faculty houses. He designs modular plywood components, including for roof shingles.

1960s Madras: Modern Agencies is the largest wooden toy supplier in South India. There are 400 full-time workers, almost 1000 on contract. Gopalan introduces new sawmill and wood workshop and diversifies product line to furniture and interiors like Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan.

1964-67 Madras: Labour unrests force Gopalan to close the factory temporarily. Limited production continues with families on contract and outside suppliers.

1969: Ranjan joins NID Ahmedabad for PG Furniture Design. In Madras, Gopalan increases furniture and flush doors manufacture, reduces toy-making output.

1974 Madras: Designs by M.P. Ranjan foster new phase for toys.

1988 Madras: M.V. Gopalan passes away. M.P. Manohar takes over Modern Agencies.

1988-1990s Madras: Increasing competition from plastics industry forces Manohar to scale down and finally sell out. Rockytoys closes.

sujatha.shankarkumar@gmail.com