Varnam adds colour to traditional Channapatna toys and gives them a luxe makeover

Think earthy Indian colours. Happy haldi, deep kumkum, parrot green… Purples and neons may come and go out of style but there’s something about these traditional hues that stays with us. It is these colours that inspired Bangalore-based Karthik Vaidyanathan to start Varnam. “Originally, I had a day job and volunteered with an NGO over weekends and visited artisans in the North East in a bid to give their crafts a new lease of life,” he says. But he soon decided to find a craft closer to home, so that he could engage with the artisans in a more meaningful manner. Vaidyanathan visited Channapatna near Bangalore, home to the eponymous craft of toy-making. Channapatna lac-turney uses wood from the hale tree, which is then lacquered using frictional heat. “I saw that the products they were making were all the same — small toys, whistles, key chains and the like, and decided to do something different.” The entrepreneur worked with the craftsmen and fashioned vilakkus (lamps) and pickle jars and showcased them in exhibitions. “A lot of friends saw pictures of my work and slowly started to ask for pieces for their own homes or to gift someone. I decided to take this up full-time while keeping my old day-job as a part-time option.”

In 2012, Vaidyanathan set up Varnam as a full-fledged project that doesn’t just work on design intervention with artisans but seeks to give them a steady stream of work. “I am not saying I am going to save the art, but I have resolved to help make it sustainable,” he says. He sketches out designs for new products such as bookends, wall hooks and lamp shades in Bangalore and visits Channapatna where he directly meets the craftsmen. “I spend a day with them making prototypes and then if it looks fine, I place an order for 50 products. Once any design picks up, I place orders for more.” Vaidyanathan believes that there is a lot of buzz around traditional crafts now, with the luxury market also waking up to it.

Following the demand, he now wants to merge two or more crafts to create new ranges. “Our lampshades, for instance, use Channapatna and textiles from the North East to create a new product.”

Lakshmi Krupa