Tucked between the cities of Bengaluru and Mysuru in Karnataka, lies Channapatna, also known as “toy town”, which is famous all over the world for its unique wooden toys painted in bright colours
Words: RASHMI GOPAL RAO
Splashes of colour in the form of wooden rocking horses, bright hangings and vividly painted toy bullock carts greet you on both sides as you drive along the Bengaluru-Mysore highway. Well, this is a sign that you have arrived at the land of toys aka Channapatna. Located a little over 60 kms from Bengaluru, this little town, also called “Gombegala Ooru” in Kannada (translating into town of toys) is famous for its traditional wooden toys, a craft that is over 200 years old.
Tipu Sultan connection
The toys of Channapatna are believed to have originated during the time of Tipu Sultan when he invited Persian artists to train the locals in making toys. Being a fan of wooden toys himself, he took up the task of popularising the craft of making toys from ivory wood in the 18th century. Since then, the town has been synonymous with these handcrafted toys that are characterised by their unique designs and vibrant hues. The craft has also been accorded the status of Geographical Indication (GI) recognised by the World Trade Organization and administered by the Government of Karnataka.
The toys here are traditionally made from the wood of the Wrightia Tinctoria tree, ‘Aale mara’ (ivory-wood) locally. Available in and around the town, the artist first procures the wood from the trees to make the toys. The manufacturers buy the wood from the local suppliers and allow it to season for a couple of months. Once done, the wood is cut into sizeable planks, which are then placed on a lathe machine. Based on the design of the end product, the pieces are cut into desired shapes be it oval, spherical or cylindrical. The shape is further enhanced by rubbing the pieces with sand paper and smoothening the entire surface. After this, lacquer is applied to the cut pieces using a wooden stick while the pieces are still on the lathe machine. Once the lacquer is smoothly applied, the pieces are removed from the machine. Depending on the design, different components are thus prepared individually and then assembled together. Apart from ivory wood, rose and sandalwood were used occasionally in the earlier days to make these toys. However, today manufacturers use rubber, cedar and pinewood.
The best thing about Channapatna toys is that they are extremely safe for children; they do not come with any sharp edges and all the paints used are non-toxic. Many manufacturers even use organic paints and vegetable dyes even. Colours are obtained indigenously by using commodities like turmeric, vermilion, etc.
The toys are just not limited to animals, birds and human dolls but have evolved over time with a whole range of lifestyle products now available. There are several items in the home and office décor space, including vases, pen stands, key holders and wall hangings which are sure to add life to any space. A whole range of mathematical puzzles, games and stationery is available too.
A few decades earlier, the toy industry in Channapatna was on the verge of closing. But with timely intervention by the government, things are no longer as bleak. A Lacquer ware Craft Complex was constructed and as many as 32 turning lathe machines were installed. The Karnataka Handicrafts Development Corporation (KHDC) provides financial and marketing assistance to the artists and also conducts training so that they are abreast of the latest designs. There are several organisations who work directly with the artisans as well to develop products that are modern, aesthetic and of top-notch quality.