New Delhi: Sudarshan Khanna’s most riveting features are his hands. They aren’t particularly expressive or mobile, but they are mesmerizing because of how large they are and how gentle they can still be. With his Magic Spinner, for instance, he’s dealing with a slim twig, perhaps four inches long, with a cardboard cutout of a tree’s canopy at one end and a string tied to a cowry shell at the other.
But he handles the fragile spinner with care, slipping his forefinger into the right angle between the tree and the twig, balancing it, and then whirling it round and round, the cowry shell speeding through the air. Centrifugal forces keep the spinner on his finger, even when it’s upside down. Khanna, who must have played with this toy a million times as he designed it, still derives fresh pleasure from it. “See?” he says, smiling broadly, “it doesn’t fall off.
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The spinner is an archetype of the toys that Khanna is attracted to, and that he designs. For one thing, it’s based upon a traditional Indian toy; the original was made out of a couple of broken pencils affixed by twine to each other. Better still, the toy seems simple but isn’t, which stirs a certain intellectual curiosity. “Children are interested in a toy,” Khanna states with conviction, “only if they’re discovering something”.
For many years now, Khanna has been one of India’s most thoughtful, innovative toy designers, obsessed with discovering what appeals to children and why. He has pursued this interest through his years on the faculty of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, through three books and multiple television programmes, through his establishment of a toy design course and a Toy Innovation Centre at NID in the early 2000s, and through his workshops across the world.
Social relevance: Khanna is one of India’s most innovative toy designers, obsessed with finding out what appeals to children and why. ‘Children are interested in a toy only if they’re discovering something,’ he says. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
His toys, syntheses of traditional Indian designs and his own emphasis on learning, are not innovative in the sense of being cutting-edge. Rather, Khanna sees himself as part of an effort to prepare the soil for toy design in India, from which a really landscape-changing toy—such as Lego, say—can emerge. “People think innovation is only about technology,” he says. “It’s not. It’s just about doing something better than it has been done before, and doing something that is socially relevant.”
Khanna is a burly, hirsute man in his early 60s, with a beard that is slowly being emptied of its pepper, leaving only salt. He hums as he moves about his workshop—a Vasant Kunj flat awash with light, belonging to his brother, but populated now by Khanna’s work table and his stacked steel trunks, holding toys collected over the last 35 years. On the curtainless windows hang masks from various corners of India and kites whose vivid colours have been bleached into nothingness by the eastern sun.
Khanna moved back to Delhi last year, after he realized that his schedule at NID left him little time to market his toy designs. He is still a visiting professor there, but his attention is now on Gamath, a company he started with Sonya Dhruv, a former student, to launch their ideas into markets. “The toys will be for children over three,” says Dhruv, a Vadodara-based designer, “but we think they’d also be great stressbusters for adults.”
Despite working with indigenous crafts, Khanna hates to glorify tradition for its own sake; he isn’t, for example, averse to using plastics if he thinks they will better serve his purpose. He’s a deft jury-rigger. When he was going through 50-odd test models for a particular toy and found he needed a narrow sleeve through which a thread had to run smoothly, he cut off a section of a ballpoint pen refill and used that. “It took me 15 days to think of that, though,” Khanna laughs.
Many of Khanna’s designs have tended to be produced and marketed by toy firms overseas. For a German firm Fördern durch Spielmittel, he developed “Fishes in Motion”, three cubist-looking fish, made of polished wood, that glide down a length of twine when it is stretched tight. “It’s for kids in wheelchairs,” Khanna says, “to help exercise their arms.”
These may be small innovations, but “they are big contributions”, says Raj Kumar, managing director of a Noida-based toy firm Creative Educational Aids Pvt. Ltd, and founder-president of the Toy Association of India. “More than anyone else, he has changed the mindset of a lot of people, changed the way we think about toy design. That’s a huge achievement. This change has come out of his work.”
Not from the clouds
Even a decade ago, there were very few toy firms in India that invested in design and designers; most companies preferred to look overseas for inspiration and replicate what they saw. “The primary mistake toy firms make is to regard a toy like any other product, like an appliance or furniture,” Khanna says. “But people buy toys for the idea, not for the material or whatever.” Then he looks around him to illustrate.
On Khanna’s work table is a blue plastic ball, with a fractured surface that immediately suggests intrigue. When he flips the ball from one hand to the other, the ball inverts itself and finishes up pink, the blue now on the inside; another flip, and the blue is back on the outside. This delights Khanna. It isn’t a toy of his design; he saw it first at an airport in Zurich, and soon after on the pavements of Ahmedabad. “This is what we’re missing,” he says. “We think, in India, that innovative ideas will descend upon us from the clouds, but they won’t.”
He picks up a set of four hinged cards, which open up to reveal flares of coloured paper. “This is a simple toy, but we can’t do something like the ball without doing this first.” He puts the cards down and goes back to tossing the ball to himself absently. “You need to create a background for innovation, and you need to use indigenous resources to do it.” Between his hands, the ball continues to flip, turning from blue to pink and back again.
To read the previous stories in the series, go to www.livemint.com/innovation