Talk of the toy town: The Channapatna artisans are in dire straits

The makers of the iconic GI-tagged Channapatna toys are suddenly out of business

May 08, 2020 03:08 pm | Updated May 09, 2020 04:48 pm IST

A tableau of dolls at a Republic Day parade

A tableau of dolls at a Republic Day parade

Bhagyamma takes visible pride in showing her artisan card. On any other day, the 40-year-old would be busy working from home, earning ₹500 a day selling wooden beads for car seat covers. “I also make toys and key chains from wood,” says Bhagyamma.

She lives in Channapatna in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district, roughly halfway between Bengaluru and Mysuru, and her neighbourhood has 20 houses. In the town, thousands of artisans have carved out a livelihood for centuries making the famous, GI-tagged Channapatna toys. Fashioned out of wood — soft ivory wood, teak, rubber, cedar or neem — and lacquered with vibrant, natural dyes, the toys have a 200-year-old history.

Today, Bhagyamma and her neighbours — most of them from Scheduled Caste communities — look at an uncertain future. With all shops selling ‘non-essentials’ still not completely operational, business is at a standstill. “I recently took a loan of ₹40,000 from a self-help group to buy raw material, not knowing sales would suddenly become zero,” says a visibly worried Bhagyamma. “We used to work eight-ten hours daily. My husband is old; my income is crucial to run the family,” says Sarojamma, 42.

According to legend, Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, impressed by a lacquer-coated wooden artifact he received as a gift from Persia in

the 18th century, invited Persian artisans to India to train the people in his realm. Now, more than two centuries on, the artisans here, in what has been christened the ‘toy town’, make everything from decorative boxes, pencil stands and miniature musical instruments to chess boards, tableware, jewellery, lamps and vases. And of course toys.

Suhel Parveez’s family has been making Channapatna toys since the 18th century. He exports them to the U.S., U.K., Germany and Spain. Parveez, 29, used to employ 35 full-time workers in his factory before the lockdown and had more than 100 others supplying pieces on order. With the lockdown, orders have dried up and many pending agreements have been cancelled.

Rocking horses in a Channapatna workshop

Rocking horses in a Channapatna workshop


Sixth generation

“Before the lockdown, we sold 5,000-8,000 pieces a month. Our average production cost was ₹10-15 lakh, and our profit margins were roughly 10%. The pre-orders for April were almost ready, but we could not deliver the products because of the lockdown,” Parveez says. The sixth generation artisan is a worried man today. Eight of 12 customers who had ordered in bulk for April haven’t responded to his calls asking if they still want the products.

His prime customers are multinational companies — such as Microsoft, Bosch and Infosys — and event management firms, who buy the products for corporate gifting. He books 90% of his orders online and 10% directly at his factory outlet. And now he is not sure where he stands.

Parveez graduated in animation; he wanted to use his design knowledge to enlarge the family business. With sales hit, he recently

took a ₹7 lakh loan from a local moneylender to meet running costs. “Our factory was completely shut for 40 days. After May 3, we asked eight-ten workers to start coming to work, but the others are working from home. We supply them with raw material and pay them ₹3,000 per week at least,” says Parveez. With some restrictions in areas outside containment zones now eased, several factories plan to resume activities between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., at reduced staff strength.

Pending payment

But this temporary arrangement cannot continue for much longer. Parveez needs to find buyers, even as an unsold inventory builds up in his factory. “We have only three small orders in hand right now, which will fetch us less than ₹1 lakh whereas we have stuff worth at least ₹10 lakh in our storeroom.”

In Neelasandra village, 581 of 675 villagers belong to Scheduled Caste communities, and each household is involved in the craft. Frustrated with dwindling incomes, many families have started discouraging their children from continuing in this field. Shivanna Chikaia, 45, and Laxmi, 40, make and sell roughly 100 toys and 10 car seat covers each month. Since the lockdown, they haven’t sold a single piece. Since they supply to the shops, until the pieces are sold, they don’t get paid. “Chinese products are our biggest competition; the price difference between a teakwood Channapatna car-seat cover and the Chinese ones is about ₹2,000,” says Chikaia. Often, he has to wait for his products to be sold before he can even buy raw material like nylon thread, teakwood and lacquer. Sometimes he buys these on credit. The couple feels their decision to keep their daughters away from the craft was correct. Right now, the family survives on the income from the younger daughter’s government contract job.

Shivanna Chikaia and Laxmi at work

Shivanna Chikaia and Laxmi at work


Over the last 15 years, several non-profit organisations have stepped in to help. Bengaluru-based Shilpa Trust, for instance, employs 24 artisans at its workshop in Channapatna Crafts Park; 20 others work remotely for the Trust. While the women artisans are paid ₹250 per day for assembling work, the men get ₹400 to ₹1,000, depending on their skills. The Trust also has them covered by a group insurance scheme and pays school fees of the artisans’ children. “The workshop was closed and artisans were being paid a weekly allowance of ₹2,000-3,000 as an advance. Now, operations have been partially resumed,” says the Trust’s managing trustee, M. Bhupati.

March of machines

Other NGOs like Maya Organics are also helping train the Channapatna artisans in using wood-cutting machines, lathes and contemporary designs. Yet, such organisations reach only a few artisans of the vast majority in the toy town. It is crucial, therefore, that the government extend support, especially now when the pandemic has forced the artisans into a new poverty.

Some people like the independent director of Channapatna Crafts Park, Sreekala Kadidal, would prefer the artisans to switch to hand-operated mechanised techniques in order to compete with cheaper Chinese imports and other knock-offs. “Artisans need to change their mindset,” she says. “Since buying machines is not financially viable, we buy bead-making machines at the craft park, which they can use for a nominal fee.” These modern techniques will reduce time and cost, for sure, but other innovative ways must be found to sell more products.

Kadidal speaks of starting a portal for artisans across the country and roping in NGOs to assist them in marketing and managing their work online. This step might be able to give the handmade organic toys better visibility within India and abroad. For instance, as Kadidal points out, governments could buy Channapatna toys for anganwadis rather than cheap plastic stuff.

All of this can kick in only after the pandemic is over. Until then, it’s time the government focussed on providing a financial relief package and ensuring the survival of the Channapatna artisans.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.

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