Friday, 14 June 2024 15:12

Sawantwadis Traditional Handmade Toys Struggle for Survival

Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

PUNE, Jun 14 (IPS) — Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, on the western coast of India, bordering Goa, has always been known for its wooden toys. A picturesque town amid hills and lush greenery, Sawantwadi retains an old-world charm to this day. The regal Sawantwadi Palace holds pride of place, with colleges, schools, and temples cloistered around the periphery of the lake, which was once an extension of the royal grounds. In the centre of the town is the Ubha Bazaar, or Hanging Market, which houses rows of shops selling the iconic wooden toys that are a hallmark of Sawantwadi.

The wooden toys of Sawantwadi are a legacy that the previous rulers nurtured, and they reflect the spirit of the area. Generations of children in Maharashtra and Goa have grown up playing with the life-like depictions of fruits, people, and the pull-along toys that were a necessary part of growing up. But today, these painstakingly carved, hand-made toys made of Pongamia and mango wood are struggling for survival. The once-bustling hilltop market in downtown Sawantwadi, known as Ubha Bazaar (Hanging Market), is now a ghost of what it once was. The artisan families who manufactured and sold these toys from their workshops-cum-homes are now reduced to a handful.

So, what caused the busy hands of these artisans to fall silent?

By the looks of it, several factors are responsible.

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS
Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Backgrounder

Unlike the cheap machine-made toys that flood the market today, toys are a traditional craft in India, commanding a hoary lineage from the era of the Indus Valley civilization. Like many other centers in India, Sawantwadi always boasted gifted artisans capable of painstakingly breathing life into wood and carving out an array of life-like figures inspired by everyday life. Over the decades, the life-like depiction of fruits and vegetables was always been a specialty of Sawantwadi craftsmen. Of course, there were other toys too, for every age group of children: pull-along toys for toddlers, kitchen sets for little girls, bullock carts and other vehicles for bigger children, as well as spoons, cutters, and ladles used in the kitchen. What always made these toys stand out was the environment-friendly techniques and colors that were used to produce them.

Toy-making in Sawantwadi had its origins in the arrival of Telangana Brahmins in the 17th century, who visited the kingdom to take part in religious debates with the then ruler, Khem Sawant II, who was extremely well-versed in Hindu religious scriptures and philosophy. The Chitrali artisans who arrived with the Brahmins brought the craft of toy-making and ganjifa (playing cards) to Sawantwadi.

Ideally suited to the greenery and scenic landscape of Sawantwadi, toy-making here made use of Pongamia and mango wood, which thrived in the thick forests here. The wood used for the toys would be collected in the summer and, after being washed and dried, left out to get thoroughly soaked during the entire monsoon. After thorough drying, they would be carved as per the desired shape. Once the toys were carved out, they would be covered with five layers of earth and left aside for a certain period of time. The lathe would then be used in this stage to impart the desired shape and finish. They would be painted with a powdery mixture made of tamarind and other seeds once dusted off and smoothed with sandpaper. After applying several coats of paint, a coat of lacquer and natural gum would add the finishing touches. To this day, the lacquer used in Sawantwadi toys is their special feature. It is durable and never fades or chips away, no matter how roughly the toys are used. When toy-making was on the verge of fading out at one point in time, the local royal family gave it an impetus in the early 1970s. Primarily responsible for this shot in the arm were the Queen, Maharani Satvashila Devi and her husband, the reigning king, Rajesaheb Khem Sawant VI, Lt Colonel Shivram Sawant Bhonsale. The reigning royal family also set up a workshop to make hand-painted ganjifa cards at the palace, which is functional to this day.

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS
Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Difficulties in Procuring Inputs

Historically, Sawantwadi was a vassal state of the mighty Maratha empire. When the British defeated the Marathas, Sawantwadi continued to exist as a small principality with a benign ruler during the British Raj. The erstwhile British Resident’s home in downtown Sawantwadi, at a stone’s throw from the Palace, testifies to those bygone days. The early years of the 20th century saw Sawantwadi thrive in matters of education and culture, with the rulers also making efforts to nurture traditional crafts and artisans.

In recent times, however, deforestation has made it difficult to get adequate supplies of pangara (Pongamia) wood, while mango is not suitable for products that need the lathe machine. Artisans have now turned to Acacia, Shivan (Gmelina Arborea) and Glyricidea, compromising on the quality of the toys. Glyricidea has particularly emerged as a favorite, notwithstanding its being environmentally unsound and causing rats to overrun homes.

Lack of skilled artisans

The painstaking nature of the job, the difficulties in procuring wood and other inputs, and an uncertain market that cannot guarantee earnings in keeping with the efforts put in have resulted in many skilled artisans moving out of the industry and opting for employment elsewhere. Industrialization in the neighboring districts has also been a big draw, while government initiatives to train young artisans in wood carving have been lackadaisical at best.

Very few can carve wood now, unlike in the past. So, instead of carving out a toy, the prevailing trend is to fill up sawdust into ready moulds. This also helps keep costs low and is not labour-intensive. Shashikant Rane, one of the very few remaining master craftsmen in Sawantwadi, who the government approached about opening a Hastkala (handicrafts) Kendra (centre), tells me, "I entered the profession in the early 1960s, thanks to my father, who had received special training from Abha Gawde, a well-known master in the craft. Traditional toy-making requires a great deal of patience, starting with the procurement of the right wood. You procure the wood in May but cannot work on it until a few months later. In these times of quick turnarounds and massive profits, few are willing to put in the effort,” he points out.

Rane has been training 30 youngsters in the craft every year at his modest workshop-cum-home and is a much sought-after craftsman for prominent projects all over India. Referring to the government’s lackadaisical approach to training artisans, Rane tells me, “The Minister-In-Charge had identified the venue for setting up the Hastkala Kendra and spoken to me about his vision at length. But it is over a year now, and the plan still awaits finalization.”

Unfair Competition and Dwindling Demand

There are other factors, too. Cheap Chinese machine-made toys have also made consumers move away from these beautiful, hand-carved toys, which, owing to rising input costs, sell at higher rates. One also perceives a change in taste. P D Kanekar and Company, a prominent seller of toys in Sawantwadi, has moved to manufacture non-traditional toys in recent years. Ankita Kanekar, from the Kanekar family, tells me, “Pangara (Pongamia) wood was always used to make life-like fruits and vegetables in the past. But no one is interested in playing with those now, unlike the previous generation. Pangara trees are only available in a few villages now. Besides, a single set takes around one and a half months to be made. The work is painstaking and exacting, and the return is very little. There are very few good artisans practicing the trade.”

She also blames the current transport infrastructure for dwindling sales. “Earlier, the road links from Mumbai and Pune passed through Sawantwadi. But the highways now skirt our town.”

Changing tastes are evident when one browses through the shops today. Imitations of machine-made toys hold pride of place as compared to the artistic depictions of musicians, vegetable -sellers, or fishermen in traditional attire. It is tough to spot a bunch of bananas or betelnuts either.

Lack of government support is another major factor.

The active support of the ruling royal family had bolstered the toy industry in the previous century. This kind of support is no longer forthcoming. The lack of a strong toymakers’ cooperative or guild is also partly to blame. “There is no unity among the various people in the trade to negotiate in one voice with the authorities and demand guarantees or protective subsidies,” rues a prominent toymaker, requesting anonymity.

Consequently, Sawantwadi toys were devoid of geographic identification (GI) until now.

Light at the End of a Tunnel

As I write this, toymakers are jubilant about a GI tag having been granted to Sawantwadi wooden toys on March 30, 2024. This opens up a new vista for them. Toymakers like PD Kanekar have already taken to selling their toys online. “ We started selling online during the pandemic when everything shut down,” Ankita Kanekar tells me. The Kanekars sell through the DirectCreate platform to buyers all over India. Otherwise, sales are made to wholesalers based in Goa, who, in turn, sell to those traveling to India. This is because “international courier services are not yet developed from Sawantwadi. ”

Even so, with Goa’s newly-opened MOPA airport just 15–16 km away, international tourists often come down to Sawantwadi to buy these iconic toys.

One could well say that the GI tag and the inclusivity it bestows on these beautiful handcrafted toys are a good beginning. However, a lot more needs to be done if these toys are to capture the attention of a global market. Improving the courier services as well as government subsidies to the makers could go a long way here.

IPS UN Bureau Report