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Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Incredible World of Toys at Channapatna, Karnataka, India

I have crossed this small town of Channapatna at least a thousand times if not more in the last decade, but have never bothered to explore it. The best I have come close to this town is have a cup of tea in the early mornings. And I am kicking myself for not having explored this place earlier given the umpteen number of opportunities that I had.


And the reason I am so livid with myself is because this smallish town produces an incredible range of toys for kids across the world. In local parlance, this town is called as goMbegaLa ooru, which when literally translated from Kannada to English becomes the ‘town of dolls’ or in more generic terms is 'the town of toys’.


Did you know that toys from Channapatna can be found in the White House? Did you know that the toys of Channapatna feature in every major exhibition showcasing Indian crafts and goods? Well, the answer to both these questions is YES. Michelle Obama, during her recent trip to India was very impressed with these toys from Channapatna and bought some of them to take back to the White House as mementoes.


I was aware that Channapatna was known as the toy town as huge banners on the highway deliver this message and one can also see a line of toy shops adorning the highway, but I was not aware of the class and the creativity involved until me and my friends visited this town as part of a Sunday day trip.


The idea was to stay away from the toy shops and get closer to the factories where these toys are manufactured. We entered the town with the idea of seeing huge factories with hundreds of workers churning out these wooden toys like an assembly line. But, what we saw stunned us totally.


In reality, the entire toy making industry is a small scale industry. Some are so small that the work is done right outside the homes of these skilled artisans. But, the majority of them are shops where four to six people can work together.


We found out that there were manufacturing facilities that developed just a few products though they delivered market ready products, but on the other hand, there were also other production setups that manufactured components of an overall product that got assembled in larger factories.


During my conversations with these skilled artisans, I found out that this craft of making wooden toys is an ancient family tradition that has survived many generations. But, a decade back, the entire industry suffered because of huge competition from the Chinese toy market to the extent that these toy designers had to shut shop and go elsewhere in search of their daily bread.


But, when the world found out that the Chinese toys were not safe for children, the demand for Channapatna toys picked up again as they are totally safe for the kids. Built using wood and vegetable dyes, these toys from Channapatna do not have any sharp edges or use any chemicals that can inflict damage to a kid.


To give you an idea of the raw materials used…they use Doodhi Wood (or Milk wood because of its whitish colour), which is a very soft and light form of wood that can be carved easily. Then they use vegetable dyes for colouring the woodwork. And for polishing, these folks use a certain blade of grass that comes with high abrasive properties. So basically, a total environment friendly setup.


In terms of production equipment, they have overhead belt drives that is driven by a small motor and one end of the belt drive converts the vertical motion into horizontal circular motion. This is where the craftsman attaches his block of doodhi wood and sets it along a metal vice. Various measuring devices are used to measure the dimensions, angles, planes, etc. For chipping they use a combination of a chisel and a file. For colouring, vegetable dye pieces are used while the wooden block is rotating.



Today, the Channapatna toy industry has so much demand that they are exporting more products to Europe and the United States and keeping less for the local market. A lot of NGOs and other companies have provided them with designs of global standards and have guided them to produce world class toys. And all this has led to a massive revival in the fortunes of these toy manufacturers.


Now, when you think of the toys here, these are not just your typical wooden dolls and showpiece items. Instead, they are also mathematical games and puzzles that can challenge the mind of a kid studying in the tenth grade. To be frank, some of them can also challenge the grey cells of adults.


To cite examples, they have shining models of Abacus, Towers of Hanoi (Tower of Brahma), Tic-Tac-Toe (Tick-Tack-Toe), Jigsaw puzzles, building blocks and many more.


Did you know that Microsoft India is one of Channapatna’s biggest customers? Apparently, they source a lot of mathematical games and puzzles as part of their drive towards education to all children and use these toys to impart knowledge and education to the under privileged children of the emerging markets of the world.


Personally, I was stunned when I heard the factory owner mention that Microsoft was their customer and totally refused to believe him, until he showed me game designs provided by Microsoft to his company.


In terms of movable toys for young children, they have the Great Indian train on wheels, Tortoise trains on wheels, Rabbits, Train Engines, Tops, Cars, motorcycles, Hit Me Doll, Rocking Horses and others.


In terms of showpiece items, they have vintage cars, candle stands and I am sure they have many more. The candle stands/vases are a treat to the eye as they are immaculately crafted with a chromium plated bottom. The factory owner was telling me that nearly all of them are exported to Europe as there is a huge demand for such candle vases.

 
During our visit to these toy factories, we were lucky to see the live production of the candle vases and the the tops. Both of them were seen in different toy production houses, but the creativity was simply outstanding. The only thing that came in the way was the saw dust flying all around, but we were so glassy eyed that the dust hardly mattered.


The tops that you see in the pictures above was created in five minutes flat right in front of me. And that includes cutting and shaping the wood, colouring it, polishing it and making it a market ready product. And all this was done by the hands of this wood magician.


If you get a chance to take a closer look at the Channapatna top, you will appreciate the fact that it has no sharp edges, it is very prettily coloured and shiny, has a simple idiot proof design and is very light. Wish I had such tops when I was a kid. I would not have been beaten up by my parents for creating holes on the dining table and other wooden furniture where my heavy top with the nail bottom used to spin.


Channapatna is one place where no one will ever get bored. And it is a given that the child in you will surface from within and become one with the surroundings. And then you also have the option to see how these toys get made and the skills and creativity involved in making them. Don’t miss this place like I kept missing for over a decade and then end up kicking yourself for those lost opportunities.


Channapatna is about 60 kilometres west of Bangalore on the Bangalore-Mysore road and it is just after the Sholay town of Ramanagaram. The toy industries are located on both sides of the highway, though it is best advised to ask the locals for directions. While asking, do remember to ask for directions to toy factories and not toy shops or emporiums. Locals can converse in Kannada and Hindi.


Nearly all the toy factories (big and small) are open from Monday through Saturday except for national or state holidays and the small factories are open on Sunday. Even if they are closed, the owner might open it if interested travellers come along. Toys can be bought directly from the toy factories for a cheaper price, though you can still bargain if you want to. And if you still need more information, feel free to reach out to me through the commenting system below.



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