Making the cut in Lauenen, Switzerland

As I slowly work the small, gold-coloured pair of scissors on the paper, I can see the outline of a rearing horse take shape. “It’s good, you’re doing very well for a beginner," says Anita Raaflaub, the robust Swiss lady under whose watchful eye I am trying my hand at a 400-year-old craft.

I am in Lauenen, a picturesque little village in Switzerland’s Gstaad-Saanenland region, best known for Lauenensee, a serene lake in a nature reserve. It is just 7km from Gstaad, a resort town that is popular with the jet-set crowd, but Lauenen seems quite untouched by the touristy reputation of its neighbour. It has a rather rural feel to it. Farming, dairy and cheese-making are the main trades here, and there is a lot of emphasis on handicrafts and folk art. Woodcarving, furniture painting, ceramics and paper-cutting are popular.

Paper-cutting or scherenschnitte (literally, scissor cuts) started in Switzerland around the 16th century. Unlike Chinese paper-cutting, which goes back to the sixth century and usually depicts Chinese characters and zodiac animals, in Switzerland it’s more often about symmetry in design—whether the artwork depicts a geometrical design or Swiss pastoral scenes. Chinese paper-cutting is traditionally done on red paper, while black is the preferred choice in Switzerland.

Scherenschnitte really took off in Switzerland in the 19th century, under two masters of the art—Johann Jakob Hauswirth (1809-71) and Louis Saugy (1871-1953). Most houses, restaurants, shops and hotels in Gstaad-Saanenland display paper-cut designs. The Museum der Landschaft Saanen, or The Heritage Museum of Saanen (which traces the history of the area through costumes, tools, arts and crafts), has some elaborate, almost lace-like scherenschnitte works on display. Modern-day artists are going beyond the Alpine village theme and exploring new designs—everything from the abstract and asymmetrical to fairy tales, current affairs and feminist themes.

In Lauenen, I am about to get a crash course in the art of scherenschnitte. Having managed just about average grades in craft all throughout school, I’m a bit hesitant to try what looks like an incredibly complicated and delicate job. That’s how I meet Anita Raaflaub, one of the well-known artisans from Lauenen, at a café on the outskirts of the village.

“There is no school teaching this art in Switzerland. I started making these artworks when I was a teenager and I am self-taught," says Raaflaub. She shows me some of her works— intricate designs in black on a white background, of cows grazing, goats and goatherds, prancing horses, chalets, even a farmhouse where a village belle is making cheese. My confidence is already taking a beating as she whips out the piece she is currently working on—a large doily the size of a dinner plate, on which she is cutting out an idyllic Swiss village scene.

After watching her for a while, it’s soon my turn to demonstrate some nifty scissor skills. Raaflaub hands me a rectangular piece of black card paper, which has been folded in half. The back of the paper is white; on it is a stencilled drawing of a rearing horse in a field, with a sort of curved stump in the middle. I start snipping, following the outline, trying not to cut off the horse’s tail or some other vital part of the design. “I find paper-cutting very calming; every time I am a bit anxious, I start working on a design and it really helps me," says Raaflaub, as we bend our heads over our respective designs. I can see why.

The work requires complete concentration, and I find myself getting into a sort of rhythm, following the pattern and making small cuts. For me, the horse’s mane and the grass underfoot are the trickiest parts, since they need very precise scissor work. Some 30 minutes later, I have completed the cutting and I gaze with pride at my handiwork. Raaflaub seems genuinely impressed too.

I gently open the folded paper and my scherenschnitte artwork is ready—two horses, rearing on their hind legs, with their forelegs up in the air, ready to gallop off, tails swinging and manes aflutter. The curved stump in the middle has opened up to form a horseshoe in between the horses. Raaflaub glues my little craft project on to a white cardboard and asks me to sign it. She then slips it into an empty photo frame and hands it over to me—a treasured travel memento, made more special because I had a hand in creating it.

By Prachi Joshi

The toy story of Etikoppaka, Andhra Pradesh

For a toy connoisseur, there is nothing more distressing than hearing your favourite Nakkapalli toys being referred to as Kondapalli toys. Or even vice versa. It is as though, somewhere along the way, the toys were robbed of what makes each of them special. Don’t get me wrong, the Kondapalli toys are nice enough; whether it is the pot-bellied vendor or the frail fisherwoman, their intricate detailing and their vivid greens, maroons and yellows command instant appreciation. You reserve a coveted place for them in your home, where their lightness of being can be nurtured and preserved.

But the Nakkapalli toys are so much more than just the wood, colour and lacquer they are made of. They connect with your “child soul". As you hold them, their smooth roundness embraces the curve of your palm. In your hands, they assume the proportions of a magical tale. The “Lucky Ganesha" indeed seems to radiate fortune, the notes from the tiny wooden bells remind you of the first rains and the orange rattle in your hand seems like the perfect weapon to dispel gloom and darkness.

“Madam garu…the forest has this wood in abundance. It can neither be used to make furniture nor as firewood."

I am sitting in the front yard of a little tiled house in Etikoppaka, a small village that sits by the banks of the Varaha river in Visakhapatnam. All that anyone knows about this village, if they know it at all, is that its residents have been making beautiful toys since the days of the Vijayanagara kings. And the man talking to me is S. Chinnayachari, a national award-winning, wood- carving artist.

“Why?" I ask.

In the corner, a man runs a piece of wood over a lathe machine. Wooden shavings fly into the air. Bamboo boxes hang from the roof of the tin shed.

“Because it does not burn, madam garu. It just turns into smoke."

“Which wood is this?" I ask, opening my little notebook.

“W-r-i-gh-tia Ti-nct-oria," he spells out for me, making sure I jot it down right.

In the corner, I see vapours rising from a thick, aluminium vessel. Inside it, a red liquid bubbles and simmers. A woman sits, stirring the pot occasionally.

“We get our colours from nature, madam," he says, “from the seeds of jaffrachettu (sinduri), vegetable peels, turmeric and smoke. We boil and cool them and mix them with lacquer to get the resin."

I ask him about his award.

“It is for an egg," he says.

I feel a tad disappointed.

“Yes, madam, there are 50 more eggs inside it."

“You mean nesting eggs?" I ask, my spirits soaring again.

And he shows me the pictures—the outer white one, housing 50 other eggs. Sitting prettily beside the white egg is the yellow egg, beside which is the green egg. The smallest little egg is just a tiny silver speck.

But the best was yet to come. It is a miniature chessboard of 1.2mm thickness. Fixed to a wooden stand, there is a magnifying glass fitted to the glass case. As I peer through it, I am startled by the details. He tells me he has used palm reeds for the black coins and cactus thorns for the white coins, respectively. The piece won him a place in the India Book Of Records.

“I want to enter the Guinness World Records next," he tells me shyly.

We walk over to his shed. Amid the drone of the lathe machines, I see workers shaping wood and assembling the toys.

“You say there is scarcity of wood and money, then why this?" I ask as I watch a yellow car being shaped.

“Because art must never die, madam," S. Chinnayachari tells me.

I come out a couple of hours later and walk through the narrow, deserted streets. The silence is broken by the thrum of the lathe machines. Almost every second house in Etikoppaka is a birthing place for these toys. In the corner stands a proud billboard—with a picture of another artist receiving an award from the president. In my bag, the bells, pen stands and salad bowls rub against each other and produce little earthy notes; these are treasures, and I feel rich.

By Sridevi Datta

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