You have an eager four-year-old who loves playing with toys, but all he receives are imported plastic ones, with pre-determined features. At the press of a button, they blare out music, dance or tumble. But how about a toy with some texture, some heritage?
It is toys like these that a few young entrepreneurs across the country have created, using traditional techniques, designs and materials, but rendered with style. Take, for instance, Shumee.in’s Catterbug. The pull-along wooden toy resembling a caterpillar doubles up as a holder of books or a snack. The best part? Everything is made of natural wood, is coloured using toxic-free paint, and is Indian at heart.
For six years now, Karthik Vaidyanathan of Varnam (varnam.co.in) has worked with toymakers in Channapatna, a cradle of wood toy culture, to come up with a line of familiar yet distinct creations. In 2014, he ventured into toys. He says, “Channapatna toys were at their peak in the 50s, when the Government encouraged artisans to paint using shellac mixed with natural colours.” Vaidyanathan explains how Channapatna (Karnataka) and Etikoppakka (Andhra Pradesh) toys are the only ones with a natural gloss. “After a point, the antecedents of the colour were suspect. At Varnam, we took time to put in place a system for sourcing natural colours. I did not want to bring out toys for children without knowing what went into their making.”
Meeta, who founded Shumee, relocated to India from the United States in 2012 and was looking for open-ended toys, like the ones her elder child had played with there. “I wanted something long-lasting and colourful, which would also tempt him to problem-solve. I wanted texture, because it adds to the sensory perception of a child. Multiple activities in a single toy would be an added bonus,” she says. Luckily, she lived in Bengaluru, near Channapatna.
Since Shumee was set up in 2015, it has found enthusiastic takers across the country. Take for instance, Tumchobeni Ngullie from Dimapur, Nagaland. She’d heard of the brand through a cousin and bought a wooden toy truck for her nephew. And so, Shumee’s product travelled the farthest it had within India, because Ngullie wanted “a wooden toy made in India”. What she got was a three-in-one creation: a truck, xylophone and a cut-out puzzle.
Slings and seeds
Desi Toys is another brand that’s striving to make a difference since it launched in 2012. Founder Swapna Wagh operates out of Mumbai and has craftspeople across the country working on designs she chooses. What triggered her move to toys from a management path? Nostalgia. “One day, during a conversation, I realised that today’s kids are so used to gadgets. We had a fun childhood, playing with board games, beads and seeds. My holidays were spent in Latur, Maharashtra, where we would make toys and play with them. I wanted a similar experience for the next generation.”
Wagh then designed some toys, such as the mankala or pallankuzhi , which were unfamiliar to her. “Remember the joy of counting cowrie shells, manjadi seeds, tamarind seeds…? That’s what these games promote.” She also creates slings, which have become hugely popular following the video game series, Angry Birds .
The first person to sample toys at desitoys.in is Sharanya, Wagh’s daughter, who is not yet 10. “Then, other children try them at workshops before they hit the market,” says Wagh, who uses a mix of solid wood, MDF and fabric.
Meeta says that making toys from scratch involves work. She has signed on artisans in and around Bengaluru, but her toys don’t follow the Channapatna tradition. “Our designers translate the ideas into a model artisans can follow.”
What these new-age wooden toys do is re-introduce kids to battery-free options that must be pulled along. It brings about a sense of ownership, and incentive to play. Shumee’s balance bike has no pedals. A child has to move it using his/her legs. “My younger son, Ishaan, learnt cycling that way. It helps get rid of the fear of falling,” she says.
For both Meeta and Sowmya Krishnamurthy of Aatike.com (launched in 2011), it helps that they are based out of Bengaluru. “This is a good market,” says Meeta. “People are well-travelled and open to new things. Plus, this is a city of start-ups.”
Krishnamurthy, who also launched a puzzle for pets that did well among a niche group, says that its vital clients understand the uniqueness of wooden toys. “There is a lot of uncertainty in the field, and scaling up is an issue. The artisan might face a power cut thrice a week. You have to work within this system to ensure that traditional crafts continues to charm a new-generation child.”
While these toys are rooted in the Indian craft tradition, they are functional and relevant. Best of all, they make for great gifting ideas. “Our motto is not to just save the craft and artisans, but to give people the joy of playing with and gifting others a locally-made product. Don’t buy us out of pity, but because we make sense,” says Vaidyanathan.