At the Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai this year, Bangalore’s Karthik Vaidyanathan, founder of Varnam, smiled at hundreds of passers-by as they stopped to look at his wares and take pictures of them. Varnam is a company that started out making home utility items like table-lamp bases and jars. More recently, it launched its Cat-N-Mouse series, in which cats and mice peek out of jars, bookends and wall hooks.

All these artefacts are made at the lacquer turneries of Channapatna, a town in Karnataka best known for traditional lacquer toys like dolls, carts and rocking horses. At Vaidyanathan’s stall in Kala Ghoda, some buyers recognized new ideas in old art, but others asked why these wares weren’t priced at the throwaway prices toys from Channapatna usually go for. It’s frustrating to convince people about the true value of this art, Vaidyanathan acknowledges.

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In 2011, Vaidyanathan and a friend stopped at Channapatna on the drive from Bangalore to Mysore. Vaidyanathan, who then worked at Worldspace Radio, entered a showroom on the highway selling lacquer toys. He was struck by their colour and soft wood.

He had always been fascinated by design and local handicrafts. He realized he could get easy access to the artisans who made these toys, and wondered if he could use their skills to create new types of products. Over the next few weeks, he decided to hire some of the artisans to design a small batch of household products like lamp stands, jars and napkin holders in the traditional methods used to make the toys.

He was unsure of how the wares would be received, but the first batch of lacquer products at an exhibition sold out. Buoyed by this, he quit his job and decided to start Varnam to produce lacquer products on a larger scale.

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“Welcome to the city of toys", reads the blue banner on the Bangalore-Mysore highway as I enter the town of Channapatna, about 60km from Bangalore. Wooden rocking horses are displayed on either side of the highway, just outside shops that house a bewildering array of lacquer toys.

These toys have geographical indication (GI) status under the World Trade Organization.

Atul Johri (left) works with Javed Pasha o create new designs with the old art

While Bangalore-based aerospace scientist Roddam Narasimha does not dismiss this theory, he mentions that the British machine tools that came to Mysore in the early 19th century might have given the town’s lacquerware its present, well-manufactured look. “Both Tipu and Hyder Ali loved to experiment with new machinery and might have encouraged the use of lathes in making toys," he says.

The toys are made from soft ivory wood, or hale mara as it is locally known, and coated with lacquer made from vegetable dyes. Artisans use ivory wood because of its softness and clean white colour, and the fact that the bright colours of lacquer show easily on its surface.

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An artisan on a machine lathe
An artisan on a machine lathe

Nagaraj (who uses only one name) works at the exporters Sri Beereshwara Arts and Crafts, reaching office at 9am every day to work a powered lathe to make toy components. This morning, he deftly holds an uneven block of seasoned white wood against a turning lathe, and shapes it into a cylinder. He then picks up a stick covered with lacquer and paints the cylinder. He spreads the lac evenly over the wood by holding screw pine tree (locally known as talegiri) leaves against the wood with his thumb.

For the past 40 years, he has shaped the soft white wood into different shapes and applied layers of coloured lacquer on it. Every minute means money here. Nagaraj makes anything between 1-4 per piece depending on the size of the component, earning up to 400 a day. More than 5,000 artisans make lacquerware in the town. Some like Nagaraj have full-time jobs with exporters. Others are independent workers and sell their wares to designers from across India, or to the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd (KSHDC) for sale at the state-run Cauvery emporium.

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Sri Beereshwara Arts and Crafts exports mostly to Europe. The selling point of these “organic wooden toys" is that they use organic colours made from vegetable dyes, says Santosh Kumar C., the proprietor of the establishment.

Channapatna has always thrived on exports. From the early 1990s, many artisans began using traditional methods to make products like napkin rings for the export market. The demand for napkin rings has waned since, but organically coloured toys continue to be in demand.

Maya Organic is a Bangalore-based NGO that owns a factory in Channapatna with more than 15 power lathe machines. In 2000, Maya organized a vocational training programme in Channapatna for locals. “Within months, we saw that there was an opportunity to start an entire business out of toymaking," says Muralidhar K. of Maya Organic, which has since grown into one of the largest exporters operating out of Channapatna.

“There is a certain beauty in the bright natural colours. If you go to China, they can make every sort of toy that one can possibly imagine, but the beauty of our toys lies in the fact that they are made by hand from natural colours and are not mass manufactured," says Muralidhar.

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Channapatna is 60km from Bangalore

It doesn’t take a trained eye to distinguish the toys from those made locally. The wood in the Chinese toys appears slightly unfinished, and the cheaper paint of Chinese products lacks the sheen of the Channapatna toys’ lacquer coating.

The math is a simple. “I buy a bag of over a hundred beads made in China for 45 and make car-seat backs out of them," says Susheela, threading white beads into a pattern in Neelasandra village in Channapatna district. Locally made beads cost 100 for a hundred. “For the buyer, what difference does it make whether they are made here or in China?" she asks. Though everybody acknowledges the entry of Chinese wooden ware, nobody talks about who the importers are, or where the products are stocked.

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Yet Indian designers and their use of lacquer-ware woodwork in new ways has helped preserve Channapatna’s craft.

“I studied the art of making lacquered wood products in design school," says Bangalore-based designer Nishi Chauhan, who made animals from glass bottles that had accumulated in her house and created her Animal Farm light fixture series, in which part of an animal’s figure is made from glass and the rest with Channapatna-style lacquered wood. To create a white frosted look in the glass body, Chauhan has sandblasted glass bottles. This series will be in stores in a few months “You can get forms like this in Swedish art, but the colours make this unique," she adds.

Chauhan, like many designers, is involved actively in the local community. She has started working with artists stationed at the Common Facility Centre set up by the KSHDC in Channapatna, a set-up that has six powered lathes that can be used by artisans for a small fee.

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Designer Atul Johri has created a business out of lacquered woodwork. Johri is an architect and that sensibility served him well when he released his first line of lacquered-wood home products, combining art and utility, in 2005. “I created some hype around it. I priced my glass-topped jars at prices that no one in the town would have fathomed they would sell at," says Johri who held his first exhibition in 2005 at the Park hotel in Delhi and invited high-profile guests to buy pieces in the price range of 1,500-3,500.

“I combine textures and media but keep the colours organic," says Johri, who will be releasing his next line in 2014. When he first started working in Channapatna town, he struggled to find artisans who would work with the new designs he wanted them to make. “They liked to continue to make 400 napkin rings a day. It’s what they know to do and it seemed like set income," says Johri.

Javed Pasha, an artisan who works with him now, laughs at this. “It was challenging to be suddenly asked to make a large jar—with Atul closely watching the texturing. We weren’t used to such quality," says Pasha.

Johri, often referred to as the saviour of Channapatna toys, has now moved to Channapatna from Bangalore and is creating a workshop to employ more artisans. He points out that the benefits work both ways. “I need good artisans to assure quality and I will do what it takes to keep them," he says.

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Syed Aslam is an artisan who has given up the art. Now an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore, he swears he won’t ever go back to it. “There is profit for those who sell the prepared toy, not for the artisan," says the 37-year-old who started working on lacquered wood when he was 9.

He rode the wave of the 1990s when napkin rings were being exported, but by 1998, he had quit to sell fruits in Bangalore. In 2000, he began working as an autorickshaw driver, and has never gone back. “I can make 200-400 a day at the most in Channapatna. Here I make 5,000 a week and save 10,000 a month. Why would I go back?" he asks.

“If artisans don’t find a space that will get them a regular income, then they can’t be expected to uphold the art. They will do what feeds them," says Johri. Designers like Johri and Vaidyanathan also worry that there may not be enough economic incentives for artisans to keep at their craft, and to pass on their art to the next generation.

“It’s a complex relationship. Craft can be the vehicle of economic change if designers pick it up, work with and credit the craftsman," says M.P. Ranjan, who has authored the book Handmade in India, and also taught design at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.

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Ranjan, however, views this keenness to copy design as a victory for the art form. “I see the design of Channapatna toys as far as Maharashtra and Jaipur, made in other types of wood and colour. Why would they copy bad design?" he chuckles.

Ranjan is optimistic about the future. He believes that great designers who are willing to work with and give credit to artisans can sustain crafts and make craftsmanship lucrative. “If there is great design, there will always be buyers. That is why more young designers must work with crafts, and what better craft than Channapatna lacquer work that is so easy to mould?" he asks.

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