The traditional wooden toy-and-doll craft, with perfected lacquer-ware of Channapatna (on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway), may be protected by a geographical indication (GI) tag but today a crisis stares the industry in the face. The second and third generation craftsmen are looking at other professions and migrating to cities for better income.
The Channapatna handcraft can be traced to the reign of Tipu Sultan who invited artisans from Persia to train local artisans in the making of the wooden toys. Although thousands of families are even now engaged in the trade, the signature hand dexterity associated with Channapatna lacquerware didn’t survive.
When Lucknow-based art-and-craft designer Atul Johri visited Channapatna in 2004, to associate himself with the artistes for his interior design business, Salma, the only master craftswoman of Channapatna, told him that he had come in “too late”— there was already an exodus of people migrating to cities looking for more. Mr. Johri, however, decided to settle down in Channapatna.
He not only built an association of craftspersons to work with him, but also guided them in reviving the art of lacquerware which described Channapatna.
“Out of nearly 5,000 families who were adept at lacquerware, only 500 survive today. My contribution of getting about 10 per cent of them to get their hands at it again seems a drop in the ocean,” says Mr. Johri.
The lacquering art of Channapatna is known for its mix of vegetable dye and food grade pigments, with natural shellac insect residue obtained from the trees of Amaltaas and Kusum in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa.
Absence of heritage
Although Channapatna’s toy industry survives, what pains Mr. Johri is the near-absence of lacquering that attaches a heritage value to it. “The whole world knew what Channapatna dolls and toys were. Their lathe turning and lacquerware spoke of their unique character. When the European market opened up to Channapatna in the 1970s for wooden napkin rings, lakhs of such rings were exported worldwide,” says Mr. Johri.
The toy city saw instant money in this ‘golden era’ that broke down in two decades when the European traders procured napkin rings at half the price from Chinese markets. “I would think Channapatna’s downfall started with the napkin exports taking off, as Europeans unfortunately didn’t want the lacquering expertise to go on the rings, but preferred uniform, single tone coloured ones. This ‘faded’ the art of lacquering that demands shades of tonal gradations,” says Mr. Johri. “Tonal gradation, which was slowly forgotten since the 1990s, is what I wanted to take up for the progress of the trade.” Many master craftspersons are part of Mr. Johri’s team today.
“While master craftsmen earn Rs.700 a day, junior artisans earn Rs. 400 with special exhibitions helping them with double payments,” says Mr. Johri who not only takes the products made by Channapatna artistes everywhere, but has traders from the European market coming to Channapatna looking for them.
“Each artisan here has a story of craft that the world can celebrate,” he says.