Aarthi Udayakumar, 27, still remembers her first choppu samaan, the miniature wood-lacquered kitchen set she got when she was six or seven. She remembers falling in love with the colourful toys from a temple shop in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, that came packed neatly in a basket. “I used to see my mom, grandma and aunts cook. I just wanted to imitate them,” says the Chennai-based lawyer.
These miniature kitchen sets, familiar to almost every child who grew up in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s and 1990s, come from Ambasamudram, one of the 11 taluks of Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. Plastic toys and screens have impacted their popularity but the toymakers are not giving up. Last year, job losses caused by the pandemic forced some to trek back to their hometown and take up the craft again.
Today, they are open to more contemporary designs, tying up with online retailers or crafts shops to showcase their products. Some are using social media and WhatsApp to reach out to customers directly. Now, they are aiming for a geographical indication, or GI, tag to ensure they continue to stand apart from others in their field.
In July, the Ambasamudram Bharani Mara Varna Kadasal Artisans’ Welfare Association, a welfare association of the taluk’s wooden-toy makers, applied for the GI tag for the Ambasamudram choppu samaan. “This is a traditional toy and a famous one,” says IPR, or intellectual property rights, attorney and GI agent P. Sanjai Gandhi, who filed the application. “This craft may cease to exist in a few years if steps are not taken towards its upliftment and preservation,” he states in his application. A GI tag could “uplift this craft and make it known to a wider audience,” he says.
Ambasamudram, located in the foothills of the Western Ghats, is a picturesque town along the Thamirabarani river, which is believed to have supported a civilisation as old as the one that flourished beside the Indus. A recent state report says the town has over 2,300 household industries, including those making these wooden toys. While the kitchen set is probably the most popular toy, they also manufacture spinning tops, carts and baby walkers, as well as home décor items and miniature musical instruments.
Originally, these toys were fashioned out of teak and rosewood; today, eucalyptus and rubberwood are used, says Nusrath Kauser S.G. of Native Things, a portal for indigenous products largely from south India.
The wood is seasoned by air-drying, then cut into smaller cylinders to fit onto a lathe. According to the book Cottage Industries Of India, edited by V.R. Chitra and Viswanathan Tekumalla, the toys are then shaped on the lathe with standard carpentry tools. “After manufacture, the articles are either lacquered on a wooden lathe or simply painted with colours,” states the book, adding that lacquer is prepared by mixing lac with pigments. Screw-pine leaves are used to polish the finished toys, also called kadasal toys.
Kauser, who grew up with these toys, says the colours are natural, and therefore safe for children. “These toys don’t harm the child even when they chew and suck (them),” she says, adding that she has bought kitchen sets and rattles for her children from Ambasamudram.
The state report estimates about 300 artisans from 100 families are still manufacturing these toys, doing business worth around ₹3.6 crores every year. “People look at it as a daily-wage job and not as art,” says Sivaramakrishnan S. of Aram Woodworks, who makes and sells these toys. “Any other job is better than sitting in the sun and toiling.”
The 27-year-old, who has a degree in commerce, says passion for his heritage led him back to the craft, contemporising it while retaining its essence. “My father used to make the old type of kitchen set. My kitchen set has a mixie and gas cylinder,” says Sivaramakrishnan, the third generation from his family to take up the craft. He sells the toys through an online retailer as well as shops all over south India. “Tourist spots used to give us good sales too. But that has been cut for the last two years,” he says.
The Tirunelveli district administration has stepped in to support the crafts. Earlier this year, it set up Nellai Crafts, a store in Tirunelveli that showcases the work of 1,850 artisans, to provide some form of market access. “Covid-19 hit artisans very badly; the entire supply chain was disrupted,” says the district collector, V. Vishnu, adding that setting up this store in the heart of the city has helped.
The state report has proposed other interventions, such as wood subsidies, marketing and financial assistance, design and technical development, soft skills training, welfare schemes and power subsidies. Sivaramakrishnan has another suggestion: “There is a diploma course for every art form. Why don’t we have one for this too?”
He is hopeful the GI tag if it comes through, could improve the situation. “I feel the popularity of the craft will go up and more craftspeople will come back to the profession.” Sivaramakrishnan also believes it could enhance the export potential and reduce the dependence on middlemen.
Crafts Council of India chairperson Gita Ram is more cautious. People don’t buy something because it is GI registered, says Ram; they buy it because they like it. Nor is it easy to enforce a GI tag. “Artisans don’t have the money to fight a case,” she says. Essentially, a GI tag would ensure greater interest in the craft and enable easier access to funding, says Vishnu. “Whether that will lead to sustained incremental livelihood and earnings is something we need to work on.”