Toys are an integral part of a child’s life. While toys may be viewed as and dismissed as just toys- a medium of entertainment for children- by many, they are much more than just that. Apart from delighting children, traditional toys of a region can act as an educative medium about the culture, lifestyles and beliefs of the place. The earliest found identifiable toys in India came from the Indus valley civilisations about five thousand years ago, and a long, unbroken tradition of making toys has continued in many regions across India since then. From the Asharikandi toys of Assam to the Vilachery toys of the Vilachery village in Tamil Nadu, the category of traditional Indian toys is one that is rich with diversity.
History of Kondapalli Bommalu
Southern India is known for its beautiful traditional wooden toys. The Kondapalli toys of Andhra Pradesh are a part of one such long tradition of making traditional toys. The origins of these toys date back centuries- the craft was said to have started when Rajasthani toy makers migrated to Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh in the sixteenth century, with the incentive of patronage by the local king of the Reddy clan. This legend originates from the fact that the toys closely resemble Rajasthani crafts of this period.
Artisans Who Create Kondapalli Toys
Kondapalli toys are traditionally made by a community called ‘Arya Kshatriyas’, who are also known as ‘Nakarshalu’. The community claims their lineage to that of the revered sage Muktharishi, who was said to have been blessed by Shiva himself with unparalleled skills in arts and crafts. They are even mentioned in the Brahmanda Purana, one of the oldest of the eighteen mahapuranas.
Today, the artisans lead a humble life, and are settled in a small colony called ‘Bommala colony’ or ‘toys colony’ in the village of Kondapalli in the Krishna district, near Vijayawada in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This is where the magic happens- what appears to be a simple, sleepy village is a hub for the preservation of this centuries-old craft, as is evidenced by the muffled scrapes and knocks one can hear from the small home workshops in the village.
Process and uniqueness of Kondapalli Toys
While Kondapalli toys look deceptively simple, making them is not an easy process. The most distinctive of their features include the vibrant colours and their surprisingly light weights- this is because they are made only with a light weight wood called ‘Tella Panki’. Pieces of this wood undergo a long and slow heat treatment process to rid it of any moisture, giving the toys their distinctive ultra-light weight characteristic. The different components of the toys are then carved separately and attached with a glue made of tamarind seed paste. After the toys are attached and assembled, they are carved and attached, the artisans smooth out the surface of the toys using a paste made of water, tamarind seed paste and sawdust and sand it till they get the desired result.
After this dries, they apply an adhesive made of lime, to prime the wood and give it the white coloured base. They start colouring the wood in oil based colours of vibrant hues when the primer sets. This is delicate work and requires painstaking precision. Themes of the Kondapalli toys are those of village life and the vast, rich subject of Indian mythology – the features of the many Dasavataras of Vishnu, bullock cart drivers, farmers and Ram – Sita – Lakshmana sets are painted with thin brushes in a simple yet beautiful style.
Recognition for Kondapalli Toys
The toys have been given their due recognition to an extent. The bommala colony where the artisans now reside was established by the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao in 1987 to help the artisans coordinate in sales and craftsmanship. They were also given the GI or the Geographical Indication tag in 2006.
Present state of Kondapalli Toys
Today, the state of the Kondapalli toys and the artisans is not very rosy despite the recognition. Competition from foreign toy makers, specifically mass-produced cheaper Chinese toys. Despite their history and beauty, people prefer Chinese toys because they are flashier, automated and cheaper. Another problem is the scarcity of the ‘Tella panki’ wood, which is soft and requires high maintenance. The Andhra Pradesh state government has also set up a wood bank with an aim to distribute the wood to the artisans at a nominal price. Gone are the days of royal patronage for the makers of Kondapalli toys. The Andhra Pradesh government state handicraft store chain, Lepakshi and the Lanco Institute of General Humanitarian Trust are doing their best to preserve this craft and provide a platform for the artisans to sell it.
Despite the reduction in the interest in the Kondapalli and traditional toys in general in recent years, there is a growing niche of customers enamoured by traditional handmade crafts. However, the artisans are unaware of ways to connect with their customer base directly, and rely mostly on sales from their workshops, which isn’t always feasible. Luxury handicraft brands sell these toys at high prices, but take a large share of the money, not leaving the artisans better off. Kondapalli toy makers are in desperate need of an online platform to sell these toys, without the interference of middlemen.
In a world where mass-produced goods dominate the market, Kondapalli toys are a reminder of the beauty and value of handmade craftsmanship with centuries of history and heritage. Looking beyond the idea of cheap, flashy Chinese toys, the common populace must start recognising the value and significance of traditional crafts like the Kondapalli toys. By understanding the woes of the artisans, buying their works and possibly helping them set up platforms to sell their works, we can help preserve this beautiful art form and the history it represents, keeping it alive for future generations to enjoy.
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