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May 14, 2016

Channapatna: The Toy Story

There was a time in our lives when shiny wooden toys would fill our clunky toy trunks with magical fairy dust, and our buoyant little hearts with copious joy. There would be charming figurines of dogs and trains, horses and cars housed in those trunks, and as our collections grew, so did the smiles on our faces and the pride in our hearts. Everyday, just as dusk would fall and the sky would turn purple, our ignited imaginations would bring our wooden army alive. We would watch in awe as horses would turn into unicorns, and cars would fly into the night sky, only to leave a glittering trail of exhaust as they would zoom into oblivion.

Not many people know that we owe many of these special childhood memories to a quaint little town in Karnataka. One of the main hubs of wooden toys and dolls in India, Channapatna is a quiet town tucked away on the highway spanning from Bangalore to Mysore. It's so obscure, that you're likely to miss it, but slow down and strain your ears, and you'll hear the soft rumbling of lathing machines as artisans intently create marvelous wooden wonders in India's toy capital.

The toys of Channapatna are earmarked through Geographic Indication as products of the area under the World Trade Organisation. This means that the toys that are produced are unique to the town, in the way that they are made and the materials that they are made of. With a heritage of more than two hundred years dating back to the reign of Tipu Sultan, Channapatna continues to be home to small-scale industries with artisans working within the confines of their homes, or in little factories.

The artisans use a unique method to create the famous Channapatna toys. Though the craft has evolved over time, the stages that the wood goes through have largely remained the same. The woods that are used in production include teak, pine, sycamore, rubber and cedar, though the original wood of Channapatna, ivory, also continues to be used. After procuring the wood, it is seasoned to rid it of any bumps or knots and then cut into suitable sizes. The individual pieces are then ready to be carved. The adept artisans use a lathing machine, that runs on a rotating motor, to create handmade marvels from these chunks of wood. The machine rapidly spins a thick metal spindle, allowing the artisans to carve the wood uniformly and quickly into various shapes and designs. Once the product is ready and is still rotating on the spindle, organic, non-toxic vegetable dyes are used to apply vibrant colours on to the wood as it gyrates. What you're left with at the end, is a brilliant, vividly coloured wooden toy enrobed in a soft, luminous sheen.

And just like that, unbeknownst to these wonderful artisans, with each new toy that is born, so is the imagination of a child somewhere in the world.