Somewhere in the White House in Washington DC, probably on a shelf or perhaps in a glass-fronted cabinet, is a simple, eco-friendly, wooden toy. It’s a little piece of India that First Lady Michelle Obama took back with her at the end of her tour of the country in 2010. The toy may be relatively new, but it belongs to a centuries-old tradition that has its roots in Karnataka.
Channapatna, or Gombegala Ooru, “town of dolls” as it is popularly known in the area, is on the Bangalore-Mysore highway and an hour’s drive from Bangalore. Frequented largely by souvenir-seeking tourists, you know the town is coming up when showrooms with toys start lining the road. Go a little further and a small town beckons, one that is home to wooden toys that proudly sport the Geographical Indicator (GI) tag (it acts as a certification that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation due to its geographical origin).
“Legend has it that this craft can be traced back to Tipu Sultan’s reign,” says photographer Ram Prakash, who recently put together a “photo fiction” book titled The Stopover, with his childhood friend, Deepa Pinto. The duo was so fascinated by Channapatna and its history that they set one of their own stories in the dolls’ town.
Channapatna is tiny. A couple of streets, shops selling the basic necessities, small cement houses, a government manufacturing centre with lathe machines — that’s all there is to the place ostensibly. Walk through the town and the streets reveal small, open houses whose backyards are almost always filled with toys in different stages of preparedness. “Their backyard is their workplace. Those who cannot afford the lathes, rent them on a daily basis at the government-run turnery,” explains Pinto.
Nearly everyone in Channapatna is a craftsman. They are woodworkers, coaxing and sculpting the local hale tree’s bark into toys, dolls, mathematical puzzles and bric-a-brac. There are wooden ferris wheels, cars and Royal Enfield bikes made with lacquered wood, bullock carts, horse carts, educational toys, tops, dolls with bobbing heads and a variety of animals and birds. All shiny, all brightly coloured, all beautifully hand-crafted.
To hear and watch these people at their craft is the reason to visit Channapatna. The locals prefer to describe themselves as “artists” rather than craftsmen, and they live and breathe their work, which may seem like inordinate devotion to making, of all things, toys, but consider their work carefully and you’ll see the artistry contained in these playthings. Days follow a set pattern — hand and machine-operated lathes are used to shape the wood and create different forms; the surfaces are sandpapered so that they are smooth, and then lacquered. The entire process is eco-friendly. Vegetable dyes are used for colour and a screw pine leaf is used to polish the toys to desired glossiness.
Pinto and Prakash spent 20 days in Channapatna as part of their research for the book. The openness of the locals is something they recall warmly. Visitors are welcome to walk into anyone’s house. Stay to talk and listen, and the townsfolk will share their lives and, if you’re lucky, they’ll even let you in on a few secrets of their trade. As one man in his 60s told Prakash, “Visitors are welcome as long as they have enough interest in the craft. Just answering one or two questions becomes a distraction.”
The focus of the story set in Channapatna in The Stopover is a real-life issue: how a generations-old craft is struggling to survive. It is the fictional tale of a young man who leaves home looking for better prospects, only to return eventually. An inconsistent demand, the proliferation of Chinese-made plastic toys has led to the younger generation moving to nearer cities to find jobs in malls and security agencies, leaving their middle-aged parents to carry on the tradition.
“They [the elders] are so eager to carry on the craft that they are willing to teach anyone who shows interest and skill,” says Pinto. On one of their visits, the duo met a man in his early 60s who was spending his time teaching youngsters the tricks of his trade.
The closeness to a big city like Bangalore means there are certain influences that have seeped into the town’s culture. “Most people here speak Hindi… In addition, they are extremely smart and aware of what is going on in the world, particularly in the world of toys,” says Prakash. Given the low demand for wooden toys, the more enterprising of the lot have taken to creating western accessories, home décor items and made to order items.
This toy story, if efforts of the townsfolk pay off, is hopeful of a happy ending.