A walking stick or a wooden toy train or small furniture set for children to play used to be a must for every tourist to take home from Shimla’s famous Lakker Bazaar.
Today, the market has lost both its character and identity it was once known for, though it retains its name. The bazaar now has more hotels, dhabas and shops that sell anything from artificial jewellery to readymade garments than shops that sell wooden toys or wooden handicraft. Chemist shops have mushroomed as the bazaar leads to the IGMC hospital.
Even shops selling wooden artefacts have less of local stuff than those brought from other States. While one can still find the toy trains, walking sticks, key rings, candle stands, etc. made from local wood by local artisans, the rest of the wooden handicraft or kitchenware, trays, rolling pins, spoons, bangles and other memorabilia are brought from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. The local flavour is missing.
The colourful wooden rocking horse that used to be so popular has disappeared from the shops. “In the 80s, it used to cost Rs. 200; now it will not cost less than Rs. 2,000. Who will buy it?” says Avtar Singh, whose father Bhagat Singh was among a number of Sikh families, mostly carpenters, who had come from villages around Hoshiarpur or Jalandhar districts of Punjab in early 1900 to set up business in Shimla as various types of local wood were easily available at cheap prices.
Baldev Kaur, who owns a wooden handicraft shop in Lakker Bazaar, says, “Where are the buyers who wanted genuine natural wood items?” She brought out a candle stand made of Rhauns wood. “Only the foreigners are interested in this now.”
As for wooden toys that the bazaar was so famous for, she says, “Who wants to play with wooden toys when battery-run cars with all kinds of sounds and frills have flooded the markets?”
Key rings, candle stands or crafted wooden pieces with couplets or expressions in words imprinted on them are popular among tourists these days. Their price varies from Rs. 10 to Rs. 100.
Sarvjit Singh says that many descendents of those who owned shops that sold wooden items now sell garments or have opened dhabas . Present woodcraft shop owners depend on local artisans from villages like Mashorba and Sanjauli in Shimla’s suburbs to manufacture the goods.
Because of stringent laws on the cutting of trees and the high cost of wood, local artisans carry out their trade in a clandestine manner. None of the shop owners risk giving contact details of these locals fearing action by the authorities.
Despite tough competition faced from wooden gift items from Saharanpur, Avtar Singh continues to design innovative handicraft and wooden toys himself. In addition to running his shop, he spends a lot of the time in the workshop at the backyard of his shop. He shows a toy train he crafted. “This is made of Shisham and some local wood,” he says, adding, “earlier we used to paint these toy trains in red, blue and green, now natural wooden texture is preferred.”
Lakker Bazaar in Shimla has lost its erstwhile character as a hub of locally-crafted wooden artefacts