Toys are an important part of childhood, as they educate the child on basic physiological, mental and emotional development. The activities and control that is required to understand and operate varying types of playthings instil in the child the sense of shape and colours, enhances cognitive ability and flowers creativity. However, toys may also pose as an important cultural asset. They tell stories of ancient lives and put into display the beliefs and traditions that exist among communities of people. They teach lessons and complete the mood and decor of a room. Consumers are attracted to traditional toys as they are a means to preserve the heritage, and the craftsmen and artisans depend upon the production for their livelihood.
With the change in lifestyle and flourish of western influence, however, many of the indigenous industries of India are gradually nearing extinction. National social organisations as well as worldwide agencies have stepped forward to extend their help for some cases.
Today, we explore a few of the traditional toys that are especially significant to their places of origin and are unique in their indigenous essence.
In the village of Kondapalli, Andhra Pradesh, over four centuries ago, the craft of making brilliant and expressive figurines and toy-sets originated. Made of soft wood known as Tella Poniki, these Kondapalli toys are created in the ‘Bommala Colony’. The deft artisans claim to be descendants of the blessed sage Muktharishi. The themes of these toys are derived from Indian mythology and epics and also depict rural life, animals, and birds; the Ambari elephants and the Dasavatharam set are especially significant. Each part of the set is carved out separately and then joined together with the help of a paste called ‘makku’, and the touches of final polish are added to enhance the details and mould the shape. With the strokes of thin, soft brushes, the dolls and figurines are painted in vibrant colours based on water or oil or vegetable dyes.
Asharikandi Terracotta Toys
Using traditional tools and equipment like Kodal, Pitna, knives, and Kathi, the artisans of Asharikandi, a village in Assam’s Dhubri district, employ ancient artistic techniques to deftly craft figurines of deities, animals, birds, and also objects from ordinary life. These are primarily inspired by traditional beliefs and aesthetics and reflect on the history of the religious and social customs that are prevalent in the region. Clay, sand, straw and ‘kabish’, prepared from red clay, are some of the basic raw materials that are used to mould these toys. The figurine of the ‘Hatima putul’, a symbol of cultural significance, depicts a mother with elephant-like ears holding a child in her arms or her lap. With an elongated face, this style is used as a foundation for creating different postures and designs for various other terracotta dolls.
The origin of these toys are traced back to the reign of Tipu Sultan, and are manufactured in the Channapatna town of Karnataka, India, which is rightly known as ‘Gombegala Ooru’, the ‘Town of Toys’. Bavas Miyan is regarded as the father of the Channapatna toys because of his dedication and commitment to ensure better and efficient products for the local artisans. Ivory-wood was primarily used in the making of these toys that not only showcase pretty artistry but are also durable and affordable. Since the years, the craft has evolved and now materials such as rubber, sycamore, sandalwood, teak and pine are also used. The wood of suitable quality is procured, seasoned to reduce the moisture content and then cut and carved in the desired shape and sizes. Vegetable dyes are used for colouring and then, the toy is polished to ensure finesse. Movable figures and sets like train engines, rocking horses and rabbits, and showpieces like pen stands, beads and candle stands are found adorning the shops and markets of Channapatna town.
A Thanjavur doll’s centre of gravity is fixated at its bottom-most point, such that a continuous oscillating movement is generated. Known as Thanjavur thalayatti bommai in the Tamil language, meaning “Thanjavur head-shaking doll”, these are bobblehead and roly-poly types of toys and are made of terracotta materials, marble, clay and wax. The figurines include those of traditional dancers like Bharatanatyam or Kathakali and the couple of king and queen which symbolise the royal dynasties that reigned in Thanjavur. The artisans use an ancient method where they craft these merry dolls without the use of tools or machines.
Chiselled out of seasoned wood and intricately painted with bright colours, the dolls of Natungram village in Burdwan, Kolkata, have rustic artistry that is original and unabashed by its lack of modern polish. The wave of Bhakti Movement that flourished in Bengal during the 15th and 16th centuries gave rise to the iconic pair of the Gour-Nitai dolls that represent Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his close disciple and friend, Nitai. The soldier dolls influenced by the royal kingdom of Burdwan, the figures of Lord Krishna in his many forms, often with Radha for company, and Gopinath, who is the guardian deity of the town of Agradwip, are also very popular. The famous pair of owls is worshipped by Bengalis as a way of receiving blessings from the goddess Lakshmi. Previously the dolls were painted with colours of red, green and yellow on a white base, as a religious practice. Now, with a change in lifestyle, its religious significance has lost and been replaced with an artistic appeal that makes use of varying styles and diverse palettes while retaining its traditional authenticity. They are now used as room décors and showpieces and are also dexterously incorporated onto furniture like stools, tables and cupboards.
Wooden toys of Varanasi
The craftsmen predominantly use the wood of shisham or eucalyptus trees to carve out the toys according to their required shape and size. The toys, which are attractive playthings for children and cultural decors for tourists, have no joints in them and are made from the natural vein of the wood. Tools like lathe, chisel and hammers are used to carve the wood into shape, then the surface is smoothened and coloured to bring completion to the craft. These toys, often lacquered, are cast into shapes of religious articles, deities, birds and animals, dancers and musicians.
Dolls of Vilachery
Some 200 families of artisans reside in the Vilachery village of Tamil Nadu, and as the time of ‘Navratri’ and ‘Vinayaka Chaturthi’ approaches, they get busy making the clay and paper-mâché dolls to celebrate the festivals and thrive their small businesses. Although customers often vouch for paper-mâché dolls because of their lightweight, many purchase the clay models due to beliefs in an auspicious traditional practice. These theme-based ‘Golu’ dolls, which are arranged on display to tell a story during festivities, are inspired and moulded into figures of mythology, epics and folktale. Sun-dried, these dolls are painted by hand and finished within a few days.