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Can traditional Indian toys make a comeback?

The longing for a simpler time, intensified by the shocks of the pandemic, has given a fillip to traditional toys and games. But there are many hurdles to overcome

India’s toy heritage goes back nearly 5,000 years
India’s toy heritage goes back nearly 5,000 years (iStock Photo)

Swapna Wagh remembers the day, nearly a decade ago, when she went shopping for “a lagori set or a traditional board game”, something she had played with as a child, for her young nephew. She was horrified by the lack of options. “That was when I thought there was a gap in the market,” says Wagh, who went on to set up Desi Toys in 2012, selling traditional toys made by artisans. “Parents loved the idea,” says the Mumbai-based entrepreneur, who did a small survey ahead of the launch.

Desi Toys’ website contains some of the brightest toys I have seen in a while: an ochre and emerald tin steamboat, a wooden kitchen set with the staples of an Indian kitchen, from mortar-and-pestle to a crimson gas cylinder, multicoloured lagori sets and spinning tops. They bring back memories of hot, lazy summer afternoons, monsoon holidays filled with pakoras and puddles, and wrapped surprises under a Christmas tree. “We specifically focus on toys that make adults nostalgic,” says Wagh.

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This wistful longing for a less complicated past, intensified by the shocks and losses of the pandemic, has given a fillip to traditional toys and games. Wagh, for instance, has seen demand spike by nearly 80% in the past year and a half. Nisha Ramasamy, the co-founder of Chennai-based Ariro Toys, which works with artisan clusters in south India to create wooden toys inspired by the Montessori system, says her brand has grown 10-15% a month since the start of the pandemic.

The surge in demand may be reassuring for traditional toymakers, most of whom exist in the MSME sector and operate on wafer-thin margins. But will it be an enduring one? And even if it is, can they address the issues of quality, price, safety and availability that dog this sector?

Certainly, there are many factors now working in their favour: a changing ecosystem shaped by promises of government support, the rise of online shopping, and the numerous startups working to contemporise age-old crafts. But there are big hurdles to overcome. 

India’s toy heritage goes back nearly 5,000 years—archaeologists have unearthed tiny terracotta carts, animal figurines, whistles, mazes and dice from Indus Valley sites—but Indian-made toys, both traditional and modern, now contribute only about $1.5 billion (around 110 billion) to the $100 billion global toy industry. “Nearly 80% of toys are imported,” says Sharad Kapoor, general secretary of The Toy Association of India, a Delhi-headquartered body established in 1995 to bring together toy manufacturers, traders, retailers and suppliers.

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Artisans are struggling to survive. Ask Manoharan K.V., a craftsman from Arangottukara in Kerala’s Thrissur district. A carpenter by training, he also makes edakoodam, a local puzzle similar to Rubik’s Cube, which helps improve focus and memory. The pandemic has forced him to work full-time as a mason. The average wage of a toymaker would be merely 4,000-5,000 a month, says Gita Ram, chairperson of the Crafts Council of India. No surprise then that the children of craftspeople are loath to follow in their parent’s footsteps, she adds.

Indian toys are more child-friendly, cost-effective and purpose-driven than they used to be
Indian toys are more child-friendly, cost-effective and purpose-driven than they used to be (Shipra Basu Roy (Unsplash))

Over the last two years, the Union government has been talking about growing the local toy industry. Import duty has been hiked to prevent cheap imports from China. From January, the government has made it mandatory for importers and traders to apply for a Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) licence before manufacturing or selling. “This way, there is a check on cheap imports that were hurting Indian manufacturers for so many years,” says Kapoor.

While the government’s focus is on all toys manufactured in India, including soft toys and electric ride-on toys, some of this interest is spilling over to the traditional toy industry, one so neglected that finding reliable data for it is challenging. “There is no robust central database for Indian artisans,” says Ram. One estimate can be found in the sixth economic census, conducted between 2013-14, which put the total number of handloom/handicraft establishments at 1.87 million and said they employed 4.20 million people.

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Kapoor is firmly convinced that the ongoing conversation about making toys in India will change things considerably. “Many big players are talking with artisans and I think we will get to see more of these toys on online platforms,” he says. Last year, for instance, Amazon India began a Made in India toy store, where sellers from 15 states showcase local toys. “The launch is enabling thousands of manufacturers and sellers to sell locally designed and manufactured toys inspired by Indian culture,” says the Amazon spokesperson.


A kitchen set from Desi Toys
A kitchen set from Desi Toys (Desi Toys)

Admittedly, traditional toys suffer from some fundamental issues: variable quality and lack of product standardisation, poor marketing strategy, inadequate production infrastructure, lack of variety and outdated designs, among others. “Indian toys are often very static,” agrees Vinita Sidhartha, founder of Kreeda Games, which focuses on traditional Indian games. What may have grabbed a child’s attention three decades ago may not do so today. For instance, Marapachi bommai, a traditional doll made of red sandalwood, was once popular among children in the south. “People once used to dress them up and play with them,” says Sidhartha. “I can’t see a young girl today picking that over a Barbie doll.”

Traditional wooden dolls may struggle to hold their own against svelte Barbies or soft Winky dolls but some other toys still do reasonably well. By most accounts, cradle toys, kitchen sets, spinning tops and board games continue to be popular. Vidula Desai-Karhade, a Mumbai-based communications and marketing professional, for instance, says her six-year-old loves her kitchen set. She has been trying to buy traditional toys for her daughter over the last couple of years because “they are more child-friendly, cost-effective and purpose-driven than they used to be a couple of decades ago”.

What’s helping is the entry of young entrepreneurs who are working with artisans to reinvent traditional toys. Kavea D. Guptaa, the founder and CEO of Bombay Toy Company, which sells open-ended, wooden Waldorf toys, is one of them. When she started her brand in 2020, she wasn’t sure whether to go the factory way or work with artisans. Factories offered to make an exact copy of any toy. “But the toy didn’t exist. It was in my head,” she says.

So, she turned to artisan clusters. One of them was Kaushiki Agrawal of Lattu Crafting Grandeur, a Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh-based brand that works with local toymakers, helping them reinvent the bright wooden toys they once made. Guptaa and Agrawal worked together to create what Guptaa calls one of her “best-sellers”: a grove of seven delicate wooden trees in different shapes, colours and sizes. “I realised design intervention is a huge thing,” says Agrawal, adding that it could make traditional toys more relevant. Also,  being fair to the people making these toys.  “If you give the artisans enough time and money, you will get top quality products," she says. 

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