Wooden wonders of Varanasi

Art & craft

Wooden wonders of Varanasi

Colourful wooden toys of the 10-headed Ravana lined the front row, while cute Russian dolls of Lord Ganesh, and pretty women named Lal Banno and Peeli Banno adorned the back row. Between these two rows were numerous toys including elephants, birds, bullock carts and various characters from the Mahabharata.

Well! I was at a toy shop in Varanasi, and pretty amazed. For, I only knew that the town of Varanasi was famous for its temples, musical instruments, and the renowned Banarasi sarees. As far as Varanasi’s wooden toys were concerned, I was plain ignorant.

Walking down the colonies of Kashmiri Ganj and Khojwa, I lost myself in the world of wooden toys, as I saw the craftsmen actually making them. Striking a conversation with them in my broken Hindi, I learnt a lot about their art of wooden toy making.

According to the craftsmen, their ancestors specialised in ivory carving that enjoyed good patronage during the reign of the Mughal emperors, and the British. However, they were forced to give up their craft after ivory was banned by the Government of India. With no other skill to earn their livelihood, they shifted to woodcarving, accounting for one of Varanasi’s specialities, other than silk weaving and carpet making.

Passed on from one generation to the other, the art of wooden toy making is practised by over 3,000 artisans in Varanasi. While the menfolk of the artisan community engage themselves in the various stages of wooden toy making that comprise procurement of wood, handcarving and lacquering, the women of the community lend their support by painting and decorating them.  

Talking of the process of making these toys, earlier, sal and seesham were preferred, but the rising cost of these types of wood has forced the artisans to shift to lighter wood like eucalyptus, gular, coraiya and ghurkun as they are found to be easy to work with owing to their softness. They are sourced from the nearby jungles of Chitrakoot and Sonbhadra, I’m told.

While some toys are carved out of a single log, some toys have separately carved parts assembled together. Care is also taken to dry out all the moisture from the wood before it is worked on, which is time consuming, the artisans say.

Once the wooden models are ready, they are painted in bright colours so that they are eye-catching, and finished with a coat of lacquer for that smooth finish. Very particular about the final look of the finished products, artisans use only brushes made of squirrel’s hair for fine work.

Much sought-after during fairs and festivals, generally between July and November, these toys enjoy a pride of place in every Navratri and Janmashtami tableau, I’m told. In other times, they are entirely dependent on tourists.

Priced from Rs 300, they are a tourist’s delight, I must say. Though the variety was mindboggling, I only settled for a toy of Bala Gopala riding on a huge bird, and that of women drawing water from the well.

So the next time you visit the spiritual capital of India, do not forget to buy a few wooden toys along with Banarasi sarees and bhadohi carpets.

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