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The wooden toys of Etikoppaka

Author: Shefali Vaidya
Publication: Mumbai Mirror
Date: April 1, 2018
URL:      https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/others/leisure/the-wooden-toys-of-etikoppaka/articleshow/63563361.cms

A village in Andhra Pradesh is striving to retain a cultural legacy. Mirror visits the artisans who are helping the cause.

The room reverberated with the monotonous hum of lathe machines. Photographs of Ganesh and Lakshmi adorn the whitewashed walls, decorated with dots of vermilion and fresh garlands. The room is filled with a blend of scents — flowers, sweat and a muggy smell of wood-shavings. Shelves fitted into the walls display an array of colourful objects — wooden bowls, toy trains, carts and colourful idols of gods and goddesses.

An artisan fixes a roughly-hewn circular block of wood at the head of the lathe machine and hammers it in place. The machine begins whirring and the artist introduces a chisel to the block, varying pressure to sculpt a desired shape. Right before our eyes, the rough edges of the block get smoothened out and an elegant pen holder takes shape. Then, carefully holding a lacquer stick the shade of yellow ochre, he coats its surface with practised, circular strokes. The heat emanating from the lathe in motion gently melts the lacquer stick and the dull beige of the wood gradually imbibes the colour. Soon, he shifts to another colour, and then another. Within minutes, the pen-holder is transformed into a vibrant, metallic melange of colours. It is a fascinating operation. We are in Etikoppaka, a small village on the banks of the Varaha river in the Vishakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh. Etikoppaka is famous for its turned wood lacquer craft toys, locally known as Etikoppaka Bommalu.

The artisan takes a piece of a rough canvas cloth and polishes his creation, occasionally touching the piece of cloth to his forehead to wipe sweat. The salt in the sweat brings out the sheen of the colours, he explains. The tradition of toy making in Etikoppaka dates back a few hundred years. The affluent landlords of the region would patronise the toy-makers of Etikoppaka to make toys for their children. Wooden canons, bullock carts, spinning tops and kitchen sets for girls, the toy-makers of Etikoppaka made them all. Even today, a tradition followed in this part of the state requires that baby girls be gifted a wooden toy kitchen set from Etikoppaka for their first birthday.

The wood used for making these toys is sourced from a locally-grown tree called Ankudu. It is lightweight and easy to chop and chisel, and therefore cannot be used for anything but this purpose or as firewood. Logs of wood are dried in the sun for weeks to remove moisture. Once the bark is scraped off, the wood is roughly sawed into blocks of different sizes.

Lacquer or lac is a colourless resinous secretion of a certain species of insects. It is collected by tribals from nearby jungles and mixed with colours and rolled into long sticks. The resin is highly flammable and melts easily at the application of heat. Earlier, the colours used by Etikoppaka toy-makers were completely organic, and came from seeds, bark, roots and leaves of various trees. However lately, some makers have begun mixing chemical colours with vegetable colours to extend their palette of hues. But the owner of the unit I am visiting, Mr Ramani, tells me that traditional toys such as spinning tops and kitchen sets are still made from purely vegetable dyes, as they are meant for very young children. Mr Ramani’s grandfather had set up the unit more than 70 years ago and the family takes the legacy forward.

Earlier, the toy makers of Etikoppaka restricted themselves to traditional toys which were much in demand such as kitchen sets, toy carts and tops. However, new design interventions by trained designers have resulted in toy-makers diversifying their product range to include a repertoire of objects such as wooden jewellery, bangles, idols of gods and goddesses, Matryoshka dolls, wind chimes, wooden bowls, keychains and hair accessories.

Traditionally, the Etikoppaka toys were packed and sold in attractive handmade containers woven from palm fronds — an artform in itself. In a world dominated by plastic toys, the toys of Etikoppaka are in a league of their own. Their soft, rounded contours and refined, polished colours and the overall craftsmanship distinguish them from others. Etikoppaka toys cost as little as Rs 50 for small toys and run upto a couple of thousands for bigger, more complex objects.

They may have received the GI tag in 2017, but stiff competition from machine-made plastic toys as well as modestly-priced wooden toys from China challenges the survival of the 200-odd toy-making units in Etikoppaka that lean on the craft to make a living. Fierce competition from China, scarcity of raw material such as wood due to shrinking forests and foreverevolving market demands are some of the other challenges faced by those invested in the business.

Government agencies such as Lepakshi, the handicraft development outfit of Andhra Pradesh Government have introudced several initiatives to market the gorgeous toys of Etikoppaka, but it may not be enough. If the industry has to survive, it needs greater patronage by large corporates as well as the general public. It is heartening to see large hotels such as Novotel in Vishakhapatnam including these toys in their list of items for corporate gifting.

For the traditional art form to survive, it is essential that these products are made accessible in the global marketplace. Efforts also need to be made for sustainable cultivation of Ankudu trees. Unless these measures are taken, the hum of the lathe machines of Etikoppaka may be silenced forever, and India’s children will be deprived of this cultural legacy.


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