Out of the woods

The iconic Channapatna toys are again finding their way to urban spaces in chic restaurants, hi-end design stores and living rooms. SHAILAJA TRIPATHI traces its journey

Updated - May 25, 2016 06:08 pm IST

Published - May 25, 2016 05:52 pm IST - Bengaluru

Master craftsman Ayub Pasha with his nephew and young artist Suhail Parveez at their workshop in Channapatna

Master craftsman Ayub Pasha with his nephew and young artist Suhail Parveez at their workshop in Channapatna

“Welcome to the land of toys, Channapatna” read the massive signboard on Bengaluru-Mysuru road. Some 40 kms and three hours later, we were in Gombegala ooru , the toy town of Karnataka, located in Ramnagara district. Ramnagara had become Ramgadh in Sholay , one of our biggest blockbusters ever.

There! I gasp with joy seeing scores of wooden horses displayed outside a showroom on the highway. It is nostalgic. After all, I belong to the generation that grew up on “ Lakdi ki kathi, kathi pe ghoda… .” A wooden Channapatna horse formed the crux of my favourite childhood number from Masoom .

It vanished from my mind soon after. And decades later, they vanished from our shelves too. As we got besotted by imported toys, the indigenous toys had found a huge clientele in the European market. As I map its journey mentally, I find myself at Satnoor Circle where someone from Suhail Parveez’s unit is waiting for us. We follow him to Daira, the hub of big Channapatna manufacturing units. Master craftsman, Ayub Pasha, is at work in a small room filled with saw dust. To the electric lathe, the 52 year-old craftsman attaches a block of wood and uses sharp tools to chisel out various shapes. “These are very old machines and so are these tools. A craftsperson fashions a tool according to his/her convenience,” says Suhail watching his uncle sandpaper the wooden vase. He then applies a coat of lacquer to it.

Power goes off. A regular feature, Suhail says. The deadline of delivering 400 napkin rings in 15 days to a client in Bengaluru looms large over him but he is calm.

Suhail is one- of-his- kind in his fraternity. The 25 year-old studied animation in Bengaluru but refusing lucrative job offers in the city, he went back to his native Channapatna to carry forward his ancestors’ legacy. “Procuring ivory wood isn’t easy either. For a small independent artisan it is extremely difficult but despite all of it, I want to pursue it.”

In this sleepy town, there are about 5,000 families with links to the craft. Tipu Sultan is believed to have invited artists from Persia to come and train local artisans in making toys out of ivory wood.

As the craft flourished, craftsmen grew in numbers. While the domestic market took it for granted, international market lapped it up doing it more harm than benefit. “They wanted typical products. No innovation, no thought went into it. The lacquering, the tone gradation Channapatna was known for was slowly vanishing,” explains Atul Johri, a designer who has made Channapatna his home.

These designers are ensuring its presence in stores and restaurants across the city. Karthik Vaidyanathan's name has almost become synonymous with Channapatna. His brand Varnam is known for its cool mix of edginess and functionality. It wasn't easy to up the game. The laidback attitude of artisans, not-so-forgiving customers and the limitation of natural resources are some of the battles he has fought ever since he started working with the craft technique. “I work with 40 artisans and it is tough handling them. One doesn't pursue crafts for money. One does it for passion that is why I am still continuing with my job but yes I have reached a stage where the store can sustain itself.”

His fun Jumbo napkin rings, snappy the croc wine/beer bottle holders, pigs wall hooks honey dippers, lighting etc have become huge gifting options for people.

The years of exports had affected the quality and also restricted it to the showcase. So the innovative minds brought back to it the finish and added the utilitarian aspect. Atul's unit headed by Javed is known for classy flower vases, candle stands etc.

Recently Ally Matthan's Areev - a collection of handmade soaps, shampoos and skincare products - came in exquisite containers designed by Atul.

“The senior artisans had started to believe that what was acceptable in the US was best. We didn't know any better. They had forgotten their own designs and USP and slowly they came back to their beautiful tone gradation they were known for,” expresses the designer who has recently done a collection for London. His Channapatna designs along with an 11 minute film are on view at a plush store in Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai.

At Fatty Bao, a popular Asian cuisine restaurant in Indiranagar, designer Anshu Arora tried to bring in desi quirk through channapatna dolls as salt-pepper shakers and chopsticks, one of the most instagrammed images of the eatery today.

Such is the charm of these GI tagged product that from a remote town of Channapatna, they have travelled to the shelves of White House. A delighted Michelle Obama couldn’t resist picking up a Channapatna toy train, key rings and Ganesha idols on her visit to India in 2010.

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