Toy Industry-India’s Untapped Heritage

Rajiv Theodore
Thu, 19-11-2020 08:30:10 PM ;

India’s tryst with the toys has a hoary past. From the ruins of Indus Valley to the terracotta, leather and wood toys that had abounded this country for centuries bears testimony to an extremely rich tradition but which today need to be restored to their heights of glory which once they had commanded. The country’s early literature is full of evidence which gives us vivid descriptions of toys being manufactured by traditional communities. These toys were not only made for children to play with, but had social functions too as they were part of decorations during festivals, weddings and other ceremonies. In many hinterlands it could be still seen that hand-made dolls and idols are the central features of popular festivals. Toys were not only for recreation but also used as a learning tool that imparted an element of practicality as children grew. There are a striking array of colourful rattles, animals, birds, fruits, vegetables, dolls, balls, whistles, carts, cars, trains, kites, puppets, utensils, musical instruments, spinning tops, marbles and rocking horses, even board games that were part of the disparate handicraft industry. Clusters of toy manufacturers exisited, and some prominent one that still survive are in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Channapatana in Karnataka, Krishnanagar in West Bengal, Raghurajpur in Odisha, Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu and Kutch in Gujarat. A special mention goes to the art of Tholpavakooth, a puppetry craft form especially popular in  Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts of Kerala which is rendered by puppets made out of  Thol or  leather, pava or  doll and koothu the play. 

 

Kerala’s Pulavar family is credited with showcasing through puppets to the people in hinterlands of India or in the different parts of the world the tales of Ramayana, the Bible, adapting them in various languages including Malayalam and Hindi. Transforming and adapting such ancient techniques into the  contemporary has been the hall mark of the Pulavar family who also have managed successfully to enthral audiences by including stories depicting Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle, the legend of Mahabali, and social awareness messages including road safety and women empowerment. The troupe at Koonathara (Temple at Shornur)  was founded generations back and revived by the renowned and award winning Tholpavakoothu artist late Guru Krishnan Kutty Pulavar. The name Pulavar is a title is bestowed on those who have undergone and intensive training in puppetry and puppet making which includes mastery over  Tamil literature and especially the Kamba Ramayana. The name is thus used as a prefix, explains 30-year old Rajeev Pulavar who is the son of Ramachandra Pulavar and the 14th generation of the artists in continuity. ‘’The puppets for each show are hand made with goatskin and adorned with naturally extracted colours. It usually takes a month to make a puppet. For stories of Ramayana, he says, there are more than 200 characters and each of them would have at least four different positions. This means you have to put in more time and work to complete them,” Rajeev told Life Glint in a interview.  He recalled those days when royal patronage reduced and the shadow puppetry found itself on the brink of extinction. The temple administrations had fallen into bad times and the shows had to reduce. Exponents of shadow puppetry were dwindling in numbers and the uncertain times  went on till the early 80s. Pushing aside, stigmas. It became a  defining moment for the shadow puppetry  and soon it became a family profession of the Pulavars. Talking about his father Ramachandra,  Rajeev said that he began repairing them and in the process learned the intricacies of its workman ship and gradually made new ones. Ramachandran’s legendary father Krishnankutty Pulavar had started to make puppets on his own. That was a marked departure from convention, as the paraphernalia for the art were hitherto made by (underprivileged) communities that were into leather work.  Today, the family members are adept at puppet making and women too have come to the forefront also in finding slots in the performance like Ramachandra’s wife Rajalakshmi and daughter Rajitha. Sons, Rajeev K and Rahul K, are vital members of the Kavalappara troupe.  

 

The silver lining is that hand-made dolls and idols are the central features of popular festivals even today. However this largely unorganised  industry of traditional hand-made toys have been replaced, rather rapidly by colourful and cheap plastic toys which are very often, highly toxic and made with non-biodegradable, recycled plastic. Also, the craftspersons/ families, who still make toys,  do so now for a different clientele-- the tourists and emporia. On the whole, this this once flourishing industry of traditional hand-made toys seems to be on the verge of oblivion unless there are concerted efforts to revive it. Among the agenda should be the promotion of ancient and indigenous knowledge of the craft of toy making blended with contemporary technology and innovation. This could balance the march of video games and phone screens becoming the new definers of the Gen Z’s childhood. Let us looks at the rich traditions of India’s entrenched handicrafts that had been producing toys for several generations but are today facing the onslaught of modernity, cyber technology and general apathy:

  • The Wooden toys of Varanasi and Mirzapur  have been produced by artisans for several centuries now  producing nearly 500 varieties of wooden toys especially dolls which are popular especially during this festival season.
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  • The clay toys of Rajasthan another age-old craft of India include kitchen sets with chulha, chakki dolls, animal and human figurines, etc.  This almost 300-year old art is made during Teej, Gangaur and Diwali festivals.
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  • These special dolls from East Medinipur, West Bengal called  Galar Putul  is again one of the dying art forms.
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  • Thigda dhingla, made by women from traditional Kutchi families living in the interiors of Kutch are often made from small pieces of waste fabrics called thigdas to  produce dhinglis or dolls.
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  • Traditional Punjabi toys, made of kharia mitti (porous mud). include chankana (a toy with a whistle), ghuggu (rattle box for babies), lattoo (spinning top), handwai (kitchen sets), gudda guddi, and charkha (lady spinning yarn at the wheel).
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  • On the banks of Narmada, reside the makers of the eco-friendly lacquered wooden toys, concentrated around the small town of Budhni.  Soft wood of the Dudhi branches are easily chiselled into the required shape, and then the lacquer on the toys is made by mixing colourful dye with chapdi and chandrak, natural wax agents found in the forests of MP and Maharashtra. Once the lacquer is pasted on the wood, it is finished with kewda oil for the gloss effect.
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  • It is Maharashtra that the Bhatukali miniature kitchen toy sets are made with skills that resonates  down from 12 th century and are made of copper and brass. Maharashtra is also famous for its wooden toys craft and the Ganjifa playing cards. Made from the Pangara tree and mango tree wood, these are crafted by the Chitari or Chitrakar community that migrated from Karwada.
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  • Channapatna toys are made from natural products like wood and natural vegetable dyes. Manufactured in Channapatna, in Ramnagara district of Karnataka, these toys Channapatna toys are made from natural products like wood and vegetable dyes. The art is more than  200-year-old.
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  • Choppu saman or  wooden toy sets of miniature kitchen utensils has been around for many generations. Also well-known is the  Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai a doll that is more of a showpiece than a toy for  children.
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  • In the Bommala Colony in Kondapalli, a small town in Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh traditional toys are made by hand using Tella Poniki, a soft wood found in the Kondapalli forest mostly depicting village life, mythological figures and the ‘dancing dolls’.
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  • A special mention goes to the art of Tholpavakooth, a puppetry craft form especially popular in  Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts of Kerala which is rendered by puppets made out of  Thol or  leather, pava or  doll and koothu the play.

To date, the Indian toy industry remains a completely eclectic mix of artisans, small sellers of handmade toys, and big names in the game. It ranges from an artisan making wooden toys in Kondapalli in Andhra Pradesh to local toy manufacturers like Dimpy Stuff who are licensed to publish toys by Marvel and Disney. The longest tradition remains of wooden toys in India which were prominent in Channapatna in Karnataka. The city is prominently called Gombegala Nagara which means the town of toys. This was followed by the manufacturing of wooden and rubber toys across the country before Chinese toys took over the market by a rage owing to their use of plastic and cheap pricing along with the introduction of electric toys. 

Chinese toys tend to be cheaper mainly because of their mass production, as well as using substandard raw materials especially targeting markets like India. Additionally, the local authorities in China provides several benefits such as government protection, subsidies on purchasing land as well as exporting and loans at cheap interest rates. This encourages mass production and reduces the cost by such an extent that China dominates the Indian market by a vast difference. The domestic industry does not manufacture the same level of battery-operated and electric toys due to a lack of investment in Research and Development. If the MSMEs can be brought together to manufacture small components for local companies, along with government benefits and more investment in infrastructure and technology, India could shape into a technology hub. So, under the initiative to be more self-reliant, the goal is to develop this sector by providing it with the necessary resources and branding support that would help India maintain its quality and alongside achieve more competitive pricing, innovation, technological advancement, and finally gain international recognition.

Though India’s toy market is worth $1.75 billion, almost 85-90 percent toys sold in India are  made in China. This is primarily because Chinese toys are sold for a cheap price. The organised toy industry in India is estimated to be Rs 3,500-4,500 crore. Homegrown toys constitute just around 15%, while 85% are imported toys. And China accounts for 90% of the toys imported to India.  A huge domestic market  beckons investors--India is home to 25% of the world’s children aged between 0 and 12, according to the World Bank’s 2019 data. India is ranked 8th globally as a  sales marketplace for toys. This is a key attraction for foreign companies to do business in India. The domestic toy demand is expected to grow at 15-20% CAGR between 2020 and 2025 as against the global average of 5%.. India has over 800 toys and game manufacturers producing them locally.

There is low incentivisation by government and non-availability of easy finance for the sector. Because of these challenges, there is currently a huge gap in level of infrastructure required to make fully functional and feature toys that are most in demand, and very low inclination to develop & design quality and innovative home-grown toy brands. Building India as a trustworthy destination for quality manufacturing can offer more and accelerated dividends rather than curbing imports of toys. Steps could include setting up of more SEZs, holistic reforms like relaxed labour laws that encourage the local manufacturers, decentralization of FDI approvals, superior infrastructure and connectivity and focus on technology & quality.

These steps will ensure an FDI-led growth of manufacturing and exports from India of these categories of products. To reiterate, the same global players who’s high-quality branded goods are being taxed with higher tariffs are the potential primary targets for bringing in FDI to boost the manufacturing sector in India, hence leaving such players out of imposition of curbs would be an absolute must for any such policy to be productive for India.

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