Channapatna toys are a particular form of wooden toys that are manufactured in the town of Channapatna, a city located 60 km south-west of Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka. This traditional craft is protected as a geographical indication (GI) under the World Trade Organization and has led to Channapatna being known as Gombegala Ooru (toy-town). Traditionally, the craft involved lacquering the wood of the Wrightia tinctoria tree, colloquially known as ivory-wood.
The origin of these toys can be traced to the reign of Tipu Sultan who invited artisans from Persia to train the local artisans in the making of wooden toys in 18th century. Bavas Miyan is regarded as the father of Channapatna toy. He adopted Japanese technology for toys making and help the local artisans improve their art. For nearly two centuries, ivory-wood was the main wood used in the making of these toys, though rosewood and sandalwood were also occasionally used. The lacquering art of Channapatna is known for its mix of vegetable dye and food grade pigments, with natural residue obtained from the trees of Amaltaas and Kusum in West Bengal and Orissa.
Manufacturing stages includes procuring and seasoning the wood, cutting wood into the desired shape, pruning and carving the toys, applying the colors and then polishing the end product. Vegetable dyes are used in the coloring process to ensure that the toys and dolls are safe for use by children. Turmeric is used for yellow color , indigo powder for blue, and kumkum powder for orange and red.
This craft of making wooden toys is a family tradition that has been passed down multiple generations. 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. Today, more than 6,000 people in Channapatna, working in nearly 300 home manufacturing units and 50 small factories, are engaged in this craft.
A promising future
For two centuries, the town produced toys for the domestic Indian market. The influx of Chinese toys battered its market and the town’s products were reduced to being souvenirs for tourists visiting Mysore. But today artisans are being trained on modern machines and they produce toys ranging from simple push, pull and stack toys to puzzles. The humble doll now sits in a Formula-One like racing car, wooden butterflies flap their wings while ducks waddle and paddle. Besides toys, Channapatna has also started making a range of other products thanks to designers who are giving the craft a different edge and exposure. Today they make tableware, vases and candles holders using lacquer ware techniques traditionally applied to toy making. All these have found an international market with growing awareness about natural dyes. 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 mementos.